This has been a period of great turbulence for all teachers, as we have grappled with the complexities of remote teaching, assessment preparation and home schooling. Here in Northern Ireland we have also been thrown into a needless squabble with our own Department of Education.
On 10 November, the Welsh Government decided that, due to the disruption to learning caused by the pandemic, children in Wales would not have to sit summer exams. WJEC duly announced that for June 2021 students would not be assessed by externally set terminal examination. This decision had an impact in Northern Ireland where a number of schools choose to teach WJEC courses. Particularly at A Level, CCEA - our home board - have significant gaps in their curricular offer, and WJEC courses that fill these gaps have the advantage that they fit the modular structure that English boards moved away from. WJEC announced that students outside of Wales would be given the option of sitting exams or not, as the schools decided.
We waited to hear what arrangements we needed to make in order to complete the courses, sure that it was a matter of time before the same decision would be taken locally.
On 6 January, in the middle of that rush of meetings, boxing up books, and setting up our Teams for a round of remote learning, news came through that our education minister had decreed that in alignment with students in England, Scotland and Wales, our students would not sit summer exams in June. There was certainly work to be done, but we knew now what was in front of us, and we settled into that cycle of planning, setting work and marking remotely. But an unexpected twist was to in the works.
On 21 January, buried in paragraph 7 and 8 of a DE circular, news came that Northern Irish students were to be banned from sitting courses offered by WJEC, whose suite of qualifications would no longer be permitted for our schools. The justification offered was that the Welsh Government’s decision had caused an undue amount of stress and uncertainty to teachers in Northern Ireland. Instead, we would have to find alternative courses, design new content and adapt our A Level curricular offer.
Surely this was a mistake. The following week saw a flurry of letters to Peter Weir, Stormont’s education minister. First of these was the Governing Bodies Association – the representative organization for the voluntary sector of Northern Ireland’s schools - who expressed their surprise and dismay and the unjustified narrowing of curricular options for students.
The NI Teacher’s Council - a joint trade union body - highlighted the lack of consultation with teachers in the process of the decision. And subject representative bodies such as NI Drama - of which I am a part - communicated shock at the disruption caused by a decision that was made ostensibly on our behalf. The signatories to these letters were not only teachers, but Universities and Arts organizations. The story was picked up by BBC Northern Ireland. At the following meeting of the Education Select Committee we were delighted to hear our questions put directly to the minister. And he seemed to open the door to changing his mind. At the end of half term I was asked to comment on the minister’s letter of response to the questions. The letter laid out the grounds for his decision. These were mostly concerned with his suspicion that the Welsh Government may move away from exams in the future, insinuating there were indications from WJEC that this may be the case. In reality, the organization has never so much as considered this course of action. It seems that a welcome reverse must be made - but it has not happened yet.
Should this be the end of it? We certainly hope so. But there is deep disappointment with the decision making process the minister has taken. He makes great play of awaiting results of an independent review into “alternative awarding arrangements” in Wales that has in reality has already concluded.
The review recommended that exams be maintained as the best of the available methods of assessment for A Level courses. The minister is also worried about any future moves away from exams in Wales. But throughout the process WJEC time and again have made it clear that Northern Ireland are free to decide how students on their courses be assessed - sticking with exams if desired - and they would work with our Department of Education to ensure these assessments had parity across the cohort. I work closely with colleagues in Wales and frankly it has been embarrassing to try and explain why this might be happening.
We have lived through a seismic change in educational delivery, we are battling a pandemic that has challenged every aspect of how we organise teaching and learning. And we are proud to have responded so well. Peter Weir’s record on the pandemic is appalling - from efforts to stall the first school lockdown, to a failure to anticipate the grading crises, and finally dithering to a useless compromise on Grammar school entry tests.
It is impossible to see who benefits from this. Because he doesn't understand educational issues, he has staked his flag on a procedural matter, and tried to breathe into it a symbolic importance that is lost on anyone in the sector and not even noticed by anyone else. To save face, he has manufactured criteria that WJEC already meet in the hopes of presenting his U-Turn as a victory. Our students are still banned from WJEC courses until he feels he can reverse his blunder with minimum fuss. And it is not good enough.
An education minister should not serve if they don't know to put learning first. Weir has come to symbolize the lack of purpose at the heart of much of our thinking on Education in Northern Ireland, and the pandemic has shown that many of our public bodies exist only in order to continue to exist, having long since lost sight of the duties of their service.
Only by publicly holding them to account can we show that we deserve better than this. And as we emerge from this crisis we must make sure to do what we can to never allow people like this to have this power again.