The controversy over this year’s exam grades in Northern Ireland is to be debated by MLAs after most Stormont parties backed a motion to recall the North’s Assembly from summer recess.
The text of the motion – which was proposed by the SDLP and supported by all parties with the exception of the DUP – notes that the Assembly is “deeply concerned that the modelling used to calculate grades for AS and A-levels has awarded incorrect results for students across Northern Ireland”.
It calls on the education minister, the DUP MLA Peter Weir, to award students either their AS or the exam board’s grade, or their grade predicted by their teacher – whichever is the highest – “due to exceptional Covid-19 circumstances.”
Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey will decide when the debate will take place.
Mr Weir has so far resisted calls to revisit the policy on A and AS-levels, but on Monday shifted his stance on GCSE grades, which are due to be released on Thursday.
Marks will now be based solely on predicted grades provided by their schools and colleges, and there will be no standardisation of marks by the North’s exam board, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).
He said he had taken the decision following advice from CCEA, and had “listened to the concerns of school leaders, teachers, parents and young people.”
While standardisation was “normally a key feature of awarding qualifications”, he said he was “conscious that for GCSEs, unlike at A-level, we do not have system level prior performance data for this group of young people”, and this would not be available to influence any appeals process.
Reassure young people
“I have, therefore, acted now in advance of the publication of GCSE results to ease anxieties, reassure young people and their families and ensure that every individual candidate receives a grade that recognises the work they have done,” he said.
However in regard to A and AS levels he said that, unlike GCSEs, “they were standardised on the basis of candidates’ prior performance in public examinations.
“I would encourage those pupils dissatisfied with their result to contact their school or college to work through the appeals process which is free this year.
“As the appeals process is now underway, I am monitoring the outcome of appeals very closely to ensure that fair results are restored.
“CCEA has advised that extra resources are already being deployed to ensure that as part of a robust process the appeals will be dealt with both efficiently and effectively,” he said.
The chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee, the Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, said the change in regard to GCSE grades meant the minister’s position on A and AS-levels was now “untenable” and he must now “recognise errors have been made with the A-level and AS-level results.”
The SDLP’s education spokesman, the West Tyrone MLA Daniel McCrossan, said the minister “now needs to urgently change course to meet the needs of our students” and “must scrap the flawed standardisation process and trust the judgement of our teachers.”
The Sinn Féin MLA, Karen Mullan, welcomed the “U-turn” on GCSEs, and said the “sensible approach being taken on GCSEs should be extended to A Level results”.
Students received results for A and AS-levels – which are studied during the first year of an A level course and form qualifications in their own right in Northern Ireland – last week.
Students had been unable to sit traditional exams because of Covid-19, and instead were awarded marks based on estimated grades provided by teachers and statistical modelling.
According to CCEA, 37 per cent of estimated grades were lowered and 5.3 per cent were raised.
The number of students achieving at least one A* grade – the highest possible mark – rose by one per cent compared to last year, CCEA said.
There has been widespread controversy over the results, with students, parents, teachers and politicians complaining of a statistical “anomaly” that has downgraded marks.
One father told the BBC that while his son’s teachers had predicted three A grades, he had received two Bs and a C based on the CCEA assessment. “I don’t think he ever got a C in his life,” said the father.
Similar controversy in Scotland – where it was contended that the assessment system was unfair and the results of pupils from working class areas were disproportionately downgraded – led to a U-turn, and the use of teachers’ predictions alone to determine grades.
Mr Weir indicated on Monday that if marks were altered in England this could lead to a similar decision in Northern Ireland. Approximately a fifth of A level exams taken by students in Northern Ireland are set by English exam boards.
“Clearly if a national decision was taken I would want to make sure our pupils are not disadvantaged and therefore I think that would lead inevitably, I think, to a level of change,” he told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster.