Northern Ireland’s education minister has been criticised for “following the approach of London” in terms of A-level grades.
In a special recall of the Northern Ireland Assembly, SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan described the downgrading of A-level grades as “unforgivable”, adding that the system “failed them (students) incredibly”.
He welcomed Peter Weir’s U-turn on Monday from centralised standardisation to teachers’ estimates following an outcry over last Thursday’s results.
Around 11,000 grades were downgraded from teachers’ estimates.
Mr McCrossan questioned whether Mr Weir had taken his lead from the Westminster Government.
“Are we here as representatives for the people of Northern Ireland or are we here to take our lead from London?” he asked.
Mr McCrossan warned that “huge damage” has been caused.
“There’s really serious questions about what has happened here, and, yes, we’re in a better position today than yesterday, but there’s still huge damage that has been caused to the mental health of young people, and teachers have been offended and annoyed,” he said.
Alliance Party MLA and Education Committee chairman Chris Lyttle welcomed the minister’s decision reversal, but expressed concern that he could “oversee an approach that produced such seriously flawed results for so many”.
“In one school department, further to the CCEA calculated grades, the percentage of pupils attaining A*-C grades reduced from 90% to 60%, 20 of 126 pupils did not gain a university place, (they) have one pupil rank ordered by the school as second in the B band, who was awarded a C grade by CCEA … startling inconsistencies,” he said.
“It is also seriously concerning that a pattern is emerging of a minister consistently following a Conservative Government rather than leading for the people of Northern Ireland.”
Sinn Fein MLA and former education minister John O’Dowd said Mr Weir has “blotted his copybook”.
“His leadership has been questioned,” he told MLAs.
He claimed the situation around A-level grades “could have been resolved on Friday”.
“My concern is this – the minister didn’t see there was a problem until late Sunday night, and then went and acted on Monday morning in relation to GCSEs, when he should have realised at that stage there was only one solution left and that was to move in relation to the A-levels as well,” he said.
“If the minister had stepped forward and led as our education minister, as the education minister of our schools and our pupils, then he could have given our pupils an advantage, whereas many of our students are now fighting for places in Scottish universities, Welsh universities and English universities, and universities across the border, which are being filled up by Scottish students, Welsh students and English students.”
Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said there had been a “fundamental failure”, and called for someone to be “held to account for what has happened to students in Northern Ireland”.
Meanwhile, People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll called for Mr Weir to resign and TUV leader Jim Allister questioned whether exam board CCEA is “fit for purpose”.
Mr Weir responded, telling MLAs that his department had set out to provide a system that was “fair and credible”, adding “any system that was going to be put in will have problems with fairness”.
“Covid meant that there was no established process for how to achieve this so all processes had to be developed at a pace,” he said.
“Alternative arrangements were put in place after careful consideration from a wide range of options put forward by CCEA and that took account of the view of education stakeholders and experts.
“These included head teachers, the education and training inspectorate and the teaching unions. Everyone recognised there was no perfect solution but the arrangements were the best available given the circumstances.”
He pointed out the A-level results last Thursday saw a rise of 1.6% in the number of A* to C grades, as well as a fall in the numbers awarded a U grade from 1.7% to 0.9%.
Mr Weir also responded to criticism that he had followed London, describing an “inextricable link” between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
“For our students, we have always tried to create a three-country equivalence between England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and that is of significance both in terms of the examination boards, the results, but also because, for example, we have such a large percentage of our students go across to universities across the water, and so therefore having some level of linkage is very important and I think that if we were seen simply to be – forgive the pun – ourselves alone on that basis and took entirely a view that deviated from everything, I think in the longer run the people who would suffer would be our students,” he said.
The Assembly was recalled prior to Mr Weir’s decision to go with teacher estimate grades.
The motion for debate, proposed by the SDLP, was amended to focus on the “immense stress, anxiety and disruption” to “many students”, and called for the Executive “to provide clarity and guidance to students and educational institutions”.
It passed without MLAs moving to a formal vote.
Earlier, Economy Minister Diane Dodds said additional places and extra resources will be required at universities, adding that she is “working with Executive colleagues to ensure this happens as soon as possible”.