The Education Minister said he has been left disappointed that Wales has “acted unilaterally to move away from the three-country arrangement for GCSEs, AS and A-levels”.
And Peter Weir said it remained his ”priority” for the exams to go ahead as planned in 2021.
The decision by the Welsh government to cancel next year’s A level and GCSE exams for pupils has put further pressure on the Department for Education here to consider a similar policy.
Grades for Welsh pupils will now be decided by classroom based assessments with the Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams saying the decision was taken to prioritise “learner wellbeing” and “fairness”.
“These new proposals appear radically different from England and NI and call into question whether these qualifications can be treated as comparable to GCSEs and A Levels awarded through examinations,” Mr Weir said.
“Rather than alleviate stress amongst learners, I believe the Welsh proposals for teacher-managed assessments, and the lack of clarity about what these will actually entail, are likely to significantly increase anxiety levels which will further impact pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.
The experience of 2020 has shown us that exams remain the fairest method of assessing and awarding qualificationsEducation Minister Peter Weir
“My priority is that exams to award CCEA qualifications should go ahead as planned in 2021. I am conscious that the public health situation remains fluid, therefore my officials are working closely with CCEA to develop a range of further contingencies should the public health situation worsen.
“However the experience of 2020 has shown us that exams remain the fairest method of assessing and awarding qualifications. In these uncertain times, the familiarity of the exam system provides greater certainty as learners know what they are working towards and how it will be awarded,” he added.
“We have already made significant changes to CCEA qualifications, reducing the number of exams pupils will need to take and accounting for lost face to face teaching time. I will be seeking urgent clarification from the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) about the awarding of their qualifications in NI and we will work to ensure that NI learners are not disadvantaged.”
Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma has already called on the Education Minister to “immediately” cancel summer 2021 exams to spare young people sitting tests in a pandemic.
She has the support of the Secondary Students’ Union (SSUNI) and Northern Ireland’s Mental Health Champion Professor Siobhan O’Neill, and has now been joined by teaching unions in ramping up the pressure on the Department.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said it was becoming ever more likely that exams would not fully take place next year and that cancellations cannot be ruled out.
Dr Graham Gault, president of the NAHT in Northern Ireland, said the union was increasingly concerned at the stress experienced by pupils around the uncertainty.
“We are calling for urgent concrete contingency planning,” he said.
“NAHT contend that the cancelling of examinations cannot be ruled out and must be a viable and well-considered option in contingency planning.
“Whilst the future is unknown, in the current climate it seems ever more likely that examinations will not go ahead fully in 2021.
“The more planning and the more certainty we can give our young people now the more stress we can alleviate from them,” he said.
“We believe that the current package of mitigations from Minister Weir do not go far enough.”
Stephen McCord, President of the Ulster Teachers’ Union and head of science at Larne High, said members were increasingly worried for pupils’ well-being.
We have many of our members reporting students in exam years who are experiencing the added impact of isolation, illness and even at times staff absenceStephen McCord, Ulster Teachers' Union President
“Our Education Minister has repeatedly said that the schools are the best and healthiest place for our young people, yet we are now hearing of children who are being disadvantaged due to the uncertainty of the exams and this is impacting on their health and well-being,” he said.
“There has been little attempt to put in place measures to ensure equity and fairness for these pupils.
“We have many of our members reporting students in exam years who are experiencing the added impact of isolation, illness and even at times staff absence.
“All of these things are having an impact on the health and well-being of our young people. Examinations are stressful enough without the uncertainty and unknown of what the next few weeks and months will look like.
“The UTU welcomes and supports the Children’s Commissioner and the Secondary Students’ Union (SSUNI) call that exams should be cancelled for 2021.”
UUP MLA Robbie Butler called on the Education Minister to make an early decision on what form the exams will take in Northern Ireland next year.
“The intervention locally with the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma and our Mental Health Champion Siobhan O’Neill both calling for a cancellation and alternative process adds serious weight to the growing calls on Peter Weir to put the wellbeing of our students first and develop robust provisions that don’t echo the disaster of 2020,” he said.
“I urge Minister Weir to, as a matter of priority, detail an appropriate scheme that will recognise the lost classroom time due to Covid-19, protect the value of the hard work undertaken by our students, copper fasten the wellbeing of this cohort of students and ensure that the examination award is robust and holds its value with Universities and schools across these islands.”
SDLP Education spokesperson, Daniel McCrossan MLA, said students need to be given a break.
“Today, the Welsh Government have announced they will cancel GSCE and A Level exams for 2021. Scotland have already made a similar decision. Yet here in Northern Ireland, Minister Weir has his head in the sand with his lack of contingency planning and leaving our young people to suffer,” he said.
The minister and CCEA talk often of ensuring our qualifications have portability and will be accepted by universities and employers elsewhere. If we stick to the Welsh formula we can achieve that without disadvantaging our childrenSDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan
“The Executive Mental Health Champion and the NI Children’s Commissioner have already made their view clear. The current situation is untenable, adding huge levels of stress to our students. They have urged the Minister to act to provide the wellbeing of our students, by cancelling exams for 2021.”
“These are clearly unprecedented times and while there is a glimmer of hope with progress towards a vaccine, we do not know what Covid-19 will bring in the coming weeks and months. It is simply unjust and unjustifiable to continue with exams, given so many students have had to isolate and missed vital learning time.”
“The Welsh have shown us the way. Let’s follow their example. The minister and CCEA talk often of ensuring our qualifications have portability and will be accepted by universities and employers elsewhere. If we stick to the Welsh formula we can achieve that without disadvantaging our children.”
“The Minister for Education must show some leadership, give our students a break and without further delay, cancel these exams for 2021.”