Northern Ireland considers end to high-stakes exams at 16

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A major review of GCSEs in Northern Ireland is proposing an end to high-stakes exams at 16. Rather than sit a string of GCSEs, pupils would instead be assessed externally in a small number of “core” subjects.

The North’s education minister John O’Dowd commissioned the review to consider whether both GCSEs and A levels remain the best exams.

The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) is carrying out the review, described as one of most important pieces of work undertaken in the past quarter century.

CCEA has now published an online options survey, detailing a shortlist of alternatives, one of which is the proposed end of exams at age 16. The council says GCSEs were originally introduced “to facilitate learners of all ability” and to be a “passport to employment”. However, most pupils now progress to further study at post-16.

CCEA’s survey notes that many countries facilitate this progression by school-based assessment and production of a statement of achievement. It proposes to “remove the emphasis on high-stakes examinations at age 16”. Instead, there would be external assessments in core subjects only.

Other options include retaining GCSEs in line with policy in England or making some amendments to reflect the needs of Northern Ireland educational policy and the North’s economy. CCEA also suggests developing a new suite of qualifications at age 16, similar to those currently in place in Scotland and the Republic.

Mr O’Dowd said: “I have said that I am satisfied with GCSEs and A levels but it is important that these high-stakes qualifications continue to be fit-for-purpose. If change is needed I am happy to consider what might be needed. I have always stated that comparability and portability of qualifications are crucial, and any changes made will not compromise this.”

Any potentially contentious changes would have to be discussed and agreement sought from the Northern Ireland Executive. They would also be subject to a period of public consultation. 

CCEA interim chief executive Richard Hanna added: “It is critical that GCSEs and A levels continue to be highly valued qualifications, meeting the needs of our young people, the economy and society.”


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