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We'll stick to the letter on grading of exams: O'Dowd

By Rebecca Black

Published 18/11/2015

Education Minister John O'Dowd
Education Minister John O'Dowd

Concerns have been voiced after Education Minister John O'Dowd said GCSEs in Northern Ireland would continue to be graded using letters while reforms in England will see the introduction of a numerical system.

GCSE exams sat by students here will continue to be graded from A*-G, while from 2017 exams in England will be graded using a scale from 9-1.

The new grade 7 will be equivalent to an A grade here, and grade 4 will be equal to a C in Northern Ireland. Education officials here also say that the A* grade is equivalent to grades 8 and 9 under the new English system.

Around 70% of GCSEs sat in Northern Ireland are set by local examinations body CCEA, while 30% sit exams set by English examination bodies, and a tiny percentage sit Welsh exams.

The Welsh Assembly previously announced it would also be sticking with letter-based grades.

Mr O'Dowd's decision was reached following a public consultation earlier this year.

Stormont education committee chairman Peter Weir expressed concerns about the future comparability of grades achieved by Northern Ireland students to those of English pupils.

Mr O'Dowd said that all grades awarded to Northern Ireland students - whether by CCEA or English bodies - would continue to be letter grades.

English exam boards were only contacted yesterday about whether they would be prepared to continue awarding letter grades to Northern Ireland students. Afterwards, three of the four boards indicated they would engage with CCEA on the technicalities.

Addressing the Assembly, Mr O'Dowd stressed his decision had been made "in the best interests of our children and young people", and said he had heard "no compelling arguments for change".

"I believe that it will be in the best interests of learners here to continue with the established practice of awarding using letters, and I believe we must avoid unnecessary complexity as far as possible," he added.

But Mr Weir said: "Major concerns remain on comparability and portability. The department has received assurances from universities that they will adapt to differing grading systems and that local pupils will not be in any way disadvantaged.

"This will need to be backed up by the practical outworking of this by employers and institutions of further and higher education, and monitored."

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