The North’s education minister John O’Dowd said there is a pressing need to examine whether the existing system remains the best for school children. But he does not want to make change for change’s sake, having only in March ruled out following England in overhauling GCSEs.
Recent moves towards a new system of English Baccalaureate Certificates by UK education secretary Michael Gove, however, appear to have forced his hand.
Mr O’Dowd said his counterpart’s actions “may well have fatally flawed the GCSE brand”. Decisions taken in England, he added, have generated speculation about whether the North will follow suit.
The last 12 to 18 months, he said, have seen unprecedented levels of change and uncertainty in the qualifications system.
Mr O’Dowd is now commissioning the North exams board – the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment – to conduct a “root and branch” review.
“I do not believe we should be toying with changes to qualifications,” Mr O’Dowd said.
“If we want to improve our performance internationally we should focus on improving teaching and learning in the classroom and on ensuring that every young person has the opportunity to achieve to their full potential.”
His review will build on that foundation, and will consider the continuing value of GCSEs and A levels and potential alternatives that will “meet the needs of all learners here, now and in the future”.
“I want a suite of qualifications which enable our young people to continue with their education, to get a job that is matched to their skills, which in turn supports the economy,” Mr O’Dowd added.
Following the announcement, the Northern Ireland Assembly debated possible changes to exam structures. Members suggested considering different European systems including the Spanish Bachillerato, the Irish Leaving Certificate and Scottish Highers.
SDLP member Conall McDevitt said the GCSE replacement proposed by Mr Gove should not be considered.
“This so-called English Baccalaureate is no baccalaureate. It is nothing of the kind. It is just a repackaging for the kids who did best in GCSE. It is an exercise in political chicanery,” he said.