As recently as March this year, John O’Dowd indicated that he would not simply follow England in making major changes to GCSEs.
However, the announcement of a new English Baccalaureate for England has now prompted the North’s minister to say his counterpart’s actions “may well have fatally flawed the GCSE brand”.
With a consultation due to end soon on A levels in England, experts suggest that Mr O’Dowd might now seize the opportunity to look at all qualifications for pupils aged 14 to 19. The minister too is hinting that a review may come soon.
While he is disappointed that education secretary Michael Gove did not consult the devolved administrations in advance, he says he will publish his own proposals in the near future.
Mr Gove, he adds, has not yet proven that GCSEs are not rigorous.
“I don’t want to see our young people feeling that they are sitting a lesser exam,” Mr O’Dowd said.
“Whatever exam system we end up with, whatever the title of it is, it will be robust and rigorous.”
Members of the Assembly’s cross-party education committee also suggest change is needed.
Former college principal Sean Rogers, an SDLP member of the committee, says the problems of the GCSE system need to be addressed.
“Let’s fix what’s broken there. What’s broken is numeracy and literacy across the curriculum and the percentage of children achieving five A* to C GCSE grades,” he said.
“As someone who taught both GCEs and O levels I saw two systems – at least GCSEs are more inclusive. Change is necessary as society and economy evolves, but (it) must be a managed change.”
Danny Kinahan, the Ulster Unionist deputy chairman, said that Mr Gove’s proposals for England are worth “fair and proper consideration”.
He continued: “If, as proposed, the EBacc removes the annual debate about the effectiveness of examinations and its impact on morale for both pupils and staff, then we in Northern Ireland should certainly explore its potential.”