In a detailed proposal, NEU has also proposed that the Covid period be used productively to pilot a ‘Transition Year’ similar to that in the Republic of Ireland.

In short, the consultation paper calls for:

  1. An end to GCSE’s, at least during the Covid pandemic period, and
  2. A pilot of the “Transition Year” practiced in the Republic of Ireland, between KS4 and KS5.

Commenting, Mark Langhammer, the regional secretary of NEU in Northern Ireland, said:  

“NEU has today issued a consultative paper to its members proposing that the minister “let go” of GCSEs, at least during the Covid period”.  

Noting the Childrens’ Commissioner’s statement, today, that she sees “no alternative to cancelling summer 2020-21 exams”

Mark Langhammer said:

“This academic year sets teachers and pupils an impossible task. To undertake public examinations based on a full (or largely full) curriculum without ample time to teach the course. This “back to business” policy of the Minister is widely thought to be unrealistic. 

NEU suggests constructive use the Covid emergency to re-examine the wisdom of our exam-laden educational offer to young people. We believe that exams are not necessarily the most accurate way to determine the achievement of a student in a given discipline, and particularly terminal exams being used to determine a student’s grade entirely. 

Exams are more of a snapshot of performance on one day at one time, and a test of memory recall under pressure, than an overall measurement of ability in the given subject. There should be more space for properly moderated teacher judgements, as more holistic. which will be made with an overview of performance over a longer period of time, diminishing the effects of any one particularly “off” day for a student.”

NEU would suggest a proper, open, debate for changes to the ways that schools are assessed, and for reforms of the exam system – particularly GCSEs. 

Mark Langhammer commented:

“As its name suggests, the General Certificate of Secondary Education, first introduced in 1988 to replace “O” Levels, has outgrown its original role. A certificate designed to serve as a final record of achievement for those who once left school at 16 now has little or no meaning when all pupils stay on until 18.”

Calls for reform of GCSEs (and A-levels) have a long history. In 2004, the former chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson, led a review that proposed an overarching diploma to replace GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications. Failure to heed these proposals, in NEU’s view, was one of the great missed opportunities of the New Labour era that opened the door to the coalition reforms in England. Northern Ireland did not follow but cannot either wholly divorce itself from the English reforms, notably in view of the high numbers of pupils seeking university places in Great Britain. The more recent Conservative idea of educational reform was simply to make all exams much harder.

Mark Langhammer drew attention to the irony that one of the proponents of the change NEU seeks is Lord Kenneth Baker who, as Education Minister, introduced GCSEs in 1988. Baker recently noted:

“When I took the equivalent in 1952, it was before “O” Levels. Ninety-three percent got a job at 16 when I took the exam.  And so they had to clutch in their hands a certificate showing they’d achieved and that was very important.  But the school leaving age is now 18, in effect. Education goes on from aged four to eighteen. So what are we testing young people at 16 for?

“Why indeed?” say NEU

Both proposals are aimed at “de-stressing” schools at a critical juncture, but also, longer term, as a means of providing space for a broader, more-rounded, educational offer to our children in the longer term.

We had hoped that this paper would have had more internal discussion first, but decided to launch it now, today, in view of the Childrens’ Commissioners statement where Koulla Yiasouma is quoted as saying:

“I can see no alternative to cancelling summer 2020-21 exams”. Launching these ideas at this time will create more room for debate and increase the prospects of real and immediate change.

Please provide your thoughts, comments, views etc to NEU through our Northern Ireland president.