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GCSE grading system review 'an urgent priority'

A decision to retain the alphabetical system of GCSE grades in Northern Ireland as England moves to numbers is going to be reviewed, it can be revealed.

Education Minister Peter Weir said the issue of the grading system for GCSEs is his most urgent priority, and he will announce a decision within weeks.

Two English exam boards - AQA and OCR - announced their intention to pull out of Northern Ireland earlier this year after former minister John O'Dowd announced he would retain letter grades.

This would leave just the local exam board, the NI Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), and Welsh board WJEC operating here.

Mr Weir said he wants to ensure maximum choice for schools and pupils.

"I want to ensure we have an open market, which means we have a system which recognises and ensures opportunity for different examination boards to operate in Northern Ireland, and that schools and pupils have that level of choice," he commented.

"If there isn't that choice, and we are left with a situation where CCEA are overwhelmingly the body that will set the exams and also regulate them, I don't think that is a very comfortable position for them to be left in.

"Roughly about a quarter of the market has come from AQA or OCR. If they take themselves out of the market then you are left with very limited choice," he continued.

"And there is also a specific issue - some of these subjects offered by AQA and OCR aren't currently offered by other boards and there would have to be a very swift development of courses if the situation isn't resolved."

Mr Weir said he also believes it is important that students here receive grades that are comparable with other parts of the UK, and are portable.

"Ultimately, to my mind, the test will be whether there is any danger of any student losing out," he said.

"I think there is probably a sensible way through that and we are working with officials and others to see if we can find a solution to that.

"I am also conscious that there needs to be progress made on that quickly because schools will at least need to get a steer on a solution, or at least direction of travel, by the end of the academic year because they will be making plans for next year and beyond."

Belfast Telegraph