Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response, meeting on Thursday, 16 April 2020

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Roy Beggs (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Christopher Stalford (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Ms Kellie Armstrong
Mr Cathal Boylan
Mr Keith Buchanan
Mr Robbie Butler
Mr Gerry Carroll
Mr Mark Durkan
Mr Paul Frew
Mr David Hilditch
Mr William Humphrey
Ms Catherine Kelly
Mr Chris Lyttle
Miss Michelle McIlveen
Mr Justin McNulty
Ms Karen Mullan
Mr Mike Nesbitt
Mr Matthew O'Toole
Mr Peter Weir
Miss Rachel Woods

Ministerial Statement: Education

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Order members. Item 3 is a statement from the Minister of Education. The Speaker's Office received notification on 15 April that the Minister wished to make a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee at today's meeting. A copy of the statement that the Minister intends to deliver is included in your pack. I welcome the Minister of Education to the Committee meeting and invite him to make his statement, which should be heard by members without interruption. Following the statement, there will be an opportunity for members to ask questions.

Mr Weir (The Minister of Education): Perhaps I should start by passing on my condolences, as other members have, to those who have lost their lives in recent days with this terrible virus.

I welcome the opportunity to update members on decisions that I have taken to ensure that young people in Northern Ireland, who were due to complete their GCSE, AS and A-level qualifications this summer, will be awarded grades that will enable them to move on to the next stage of their lives.

On 19 March, the First Minister and deputy First Minister announced a radical package of measures that the Executive were taking to deal with the unprecedented challenges facing our society as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Amongst many other things that included the closure of schools from Friday 20 March for an unspecified period, something which is, in itself, unprecedented.

With schools closed and young people unable to complete all the work that is required for this year’s public examination series, it was vital that consideration was given to how best to provide certainty to the system, particularly for those who were entered for examinations, as soon as practicably possible. I am very aware of the importance of those exams for the future of the young people who have been working so hard towards them. However, it was clear from the point at which the decision to close the schools was made that it would be very unlikely that the examinations could take place as scheduled. Therefore, following engagement with, and in line with ministerial colleagues in England and Wales, I announced on 19 March that GCSE, AS and A-level exams would not proceed.

From that point on, my priority was to ensure that we put in place a robust process that would provide the young people who are affected with fair and equitable results. Those results should reflect their hard work and effort. Equally, they should enable them to make judgements and decisions about the next stage in their education, training and employment. I am sure that everyone will agree that it is important that the 2020 cohort of students are not disadvantaged in comparison with those who went before them or those who will come after them.

Over the past few weeks, my officials have been working with the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) to develop a process that has fairness at its core; to the young people whose lives will be impacted by the current circumstances, to the teachers who have supported those young people along their journey and share their joys and disappointments, and to the families of those young people who are undoubtedly anxious about the potential impact that the situation may have on their children’s future. The Department has received a number of queries from pupils, parents and teachers, who are all anxious to know what will happen. Today, I will provide the certainty that they seek about the process for awarding A-level, AS-level and GCSE qualifications.

I am also mindful that many young people in schools have been able to access a wide range of vocational qualifications through the entitlement framework, and they, too, seek certainty. While I cannot provide that certainty today, I can assure members that we are working closely with officials in the Department for the Economy who lead on vocational qualifications policy. Collectively, we are very aware of the need to ensure that the young people who are taking those qualifications are, likewise, not disadvantaged. The Minister for the Economy will provide clarity on those qualifications in the next few weeks.

I have a detailed paper from CCEA that sets out a series of options for each of the qualifications that are under consideration. CCEA had undertaken an options appraisal, which included testing each of the options against four criteria: fairness; burden reduction; impact limitation; and minimising uncertainty. That advice was carefully considered by my officials and me, and subsequently tested with advisers in the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI).

As part of the process to develop proposals that would have the confidence of the education system, my officials consulted with representatives of head teachers and teaching unions, as well as other education stakeholders. I want to thank those organisations for their constructive engagement in these difficult circumstances. I have taken their views into account in arriving at my decisions. While I am sure that not everybody will agree with everything, I am hopeful that my decisions will continue to have the support of the education system. Everyone recognises that there is no perfect solution, but I am confident that we now have a process that will lead to our young people being awarded the results that they merit and which will enable them to progress to the next stage of their lives, whether that be on to further education or training or into the world of work.

Teachers, in particular, will have a key role to play in the alternative form of assessment. I will come to the detail of that in a minute. I believe that it is the right approach to take: who knows better the aptitudes, abilities and educational achievements of those young people than their teachers, who have guided them through the past few years on their educational journey?

I want to pay tribute to all of our teachers for the way in which they have adapted to the current circumstances and for making every effort to ensure that teaching and learning continue in the best way possible. I also thank them in advance for helping to implement the arrangements that we are now putting in place for awarding qualifications to ensure that their students are able to progress.

Northern Ireland has an open qualifications market, which means that learners can choose qualifications offered by a range of examination bodies across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The GCSE and A-level brands also operate on a three-country basis. Scotland is in a slightly different position. Therefore, it is important, to ensure continued comparability and portability of these qualifications, that we are aligned, as far as possible, with the arrangements in England and Wales, while recognising that the approach also needs to reflect policy differences. I believe that the decisions taken provide for the appropriate alignment while also being in the best interests of young people in Northern Ireland.

Although 98% of young people in Northern Ireland's schools take CCEA GCSEs and 87% take CCEA A levels, a small number take qualifications offered by English and Welsh examining boards. Those qualifications will be subject to the arrangements in the respective jurisdictions. Ofqual and Qualifications Wales have published guidance on their website setting out the relevant arrangements.

In relation to the qualifications offered by CCEA, which are taken by the vast majority of students, I can confirm that I have instructed CCEA as follows. Young people due to complete their full GCSE, AS and A-level qualifications will be issued a set of results this summer in order to allow them to progress to further study or employment. Unit-level results will not be provided to young people due to take a GCSE qualification module.

I will cover each of the four main general public examination series in turn, starting with A levels. Students due to complete an A level this year will, in the absence of examinations, receive a calculated grade. The grade will be based on a combination of teacher professional judgement, which includes grading and rank ordering by schools, and proven statistical modelling. This statistical modelling will also include a value-added element to take account of the impact that resits would normally have had on final A-level outcomes — these are AS-level resits that have already taken place. Students will not be required to take A-level examinations through an additional sitting such as an autumn series. However, if they wish to sit examinations, there will be the opportunity to do so in the summer of 2021. Effectively, those examinations would be in the form of resits.

In Northern Ireland, AS qualifications are not only stand-alone qualifications but contribute to A-level qualifications when combined with what are known as the A2 exams. For this year, the AS level in 2020 will be decoupled from the A2 A level. Therefore, those due to complete an AS level will receive a calculated grade. However, this will not contribute towards the awarding of an A level in the summer of 2021. The AS grade in 2020 will be calculated using a combination of teacher professional judgement, involving grading and rank ordering by schools, and pupils' prior performance, including GCSE mean scores.

In summer 2021, students who continue on to the A2 will have two options. They can choose to sit only the relevant A2 papers in the summer of 2021. In that case, the A level will be awarded on the basis of those papers, with the AS component treated as a missing paper. The marks will be retrospectively calculated using recognised statistical modelling. The process is one normally used when a student is, for example, unable to sit a paper due to illness or other unforeseen circumstances, so this is something that has been used in the past.

Alternatively, a student may choose to sit both AS and A2 papers to achieve an overall A-level grade. In this case, the AS component will be calculated using statistical modelling, as in the first option. Very importantly, I want to make clear that the overall A-level grade will be awarded on the basis of the higher of the two marks for the AS component: the actual performance in the paper or the calculated mark.

Young people who are completing components for their GCSE qualification and are due to complete those qualifications in 2020 — generally speaking, year 12 pupils — will receive a calculated grade. This will be based on a combination of teacher professional judgement, including grading and rank ordering by schools, and the average centre performance over the past three summer series.

Finally, in relation to GCSE units, which are otherwise known as modules, GCSEs in Northern Ireland are modular and so enable students to take exams for units making up the full qualification at different times over the two-year course of study. Some continue to take all units at the end of the second year, but many year 11 students were due to take a number of units this year.

For those students taking units that will not lead to the completion of the GCSE qualification this year, no grades will be issued or awarded this year. Those learners will participate in the summer 2021 series and, for each GCSE, they will have the following options. Those learners not entered for any modules in a given GCSE in summer 2020 should aim to sit, as originally planned, the elements of the relevant GCSE in the next academic year, which could include some units being taken in November, January or March as part of the normal 2020-21 examination series.

Those learners entered for part of a GCSE in 2020, but not due to complete the qualification, will have two options in the next academic year. They may choose to sit only the outstanding units of their qualification, with the remaining units being treated as missed papers and marks calculated on the basis of the units taken in 2021, again using recognised statistical modelling to arrive at an overall calculated grade. Alternatively, students may choose to sit all units of their GCSE qualifications in the normal 2020-21 examination timetable. Calculated marks for the units for which they were entered in summer 2020 will also be generated. Again, the higher mark achieved for those units, either the calculated mark or the actual performance, will be used to arrive at the overall GCSE grade.

I appreciate that this is all very complex and technical in nature — members may realise that I have taken quite a long time to absorb it all myself — but CCEA will be providing more detailed advice and guidance to schools, parents and young people as a matter of urgency and has also published answers to frequently asked questions on the CCEA website.

In all the discussion of these options, I was conscious to keep learners at the centre of any solution. I believe that the solution that I have outlined does just that. It provides flexible options where possible to ensure that learners, particularly those in years 11 and 13, are not overburdened. Nevertheless, they do have the option of sitting exams for all parts of their qualifications if they so choose.

As I said earlier, teachers are a crucial part of this process. We will be relying on them for the information needed to arrive at calculated grades. Schools have a wealth of information to evidence the achievements of their students, including demonstrating progress over the current academic year. I am confident that they will be able to work with CCEA to provide students with fair and robust results. Again, I want to thank every teacher for their support in this process.

What are the next steps that need to be taken? First, CCEA will be issuing detailed guidance to schools, parents and young people highlighting the arrangements that I have just outlined. That will include more detail on the information that schools will have to provide to begin the process of collating the relevant information at the end of May. CCEA will provide advice and support for teachers as required.

CCEA is also developing an appeals mechanism that will be as robust as possible. While it will not be possible to review marking in the normal way, it is nonetheless important that young people are able to appeal if they feel that the process has not been applied appropriately in their case. CCEA will take into account the steps that Ofqual and Qualifications Wales are taking in developing an appeals mechanism. As with normal processes, there will also be an opportunity for students to take examinations in summer 2021 should they wish to.

There are a number of other issues that need to be finalised, and work is continuing apace. For example, I will be considering a number of matters relating to data collection, an issue that is likely to be handled at UK level to ensure consistency of approach. In any examination process, confidentiality is paramount in producing robust and reliable outcomes. This process requires teachers to maintain that confidentiality, and they cannot share examination assessments with parents or pupils in advance of submitting those assessments to CCEA. Parents and pupils should not ask for, nor expect to receive, this information. Teachers have a complex task ahead of them, and they must be offered the opportunity to assess pupil performance objectively and holistically.

Another issue on which work is ongoing is in relation to private candidates. Those are students who have not been taught in school; they might be home-schooled, following distance learning programmes, or studying independently. Where a school or a centre has accepted entries from private candidates — that would often be from adults doing GCSEs or A levels — those students should be included in the data provided by the school where the head of centre, generally the principal, is confident that they and their staff have seen sufficient evidence of the young person’s achievement to make an objective judgement.

CCEA is exploring whether there are alternative options for the small number of students who do not have an existing relationship with a school. Being honest, it may not be possible to find an acceptable solution for every private candidate.

Finally, I am confident that results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will issue on the original published dates. Therefore, AS and A-level results will issue on 13 August and GCSE results will issue on 20 August. It is important that the results issue in the three jurisdictions at the same time, so that no one is placed at an advantage or disadvantage.

The proposals that I have outlined should provide schools, teachers, young people and their families with the clarity that they have been calling for in relation to qualifications. I hope that that will also show that fairness is at the heart of the approach that I have adopted, and that our young people can be assured that the grades that they receive will reflect the work that they have put in over recent years.

Extraordinary circumstances have necessitated the introduction of new arrangements to replace these examinations, which have been used over many years, but I am confident that the measures that we have announced today will enable our young people to continue on their journey through life despite the disruption created by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): I thank the Minister for his statement. I now invite members to question the Minister on the content of his statement. I have 19 members listed who wish to ask a question, so it is important that the questions are focused and are directly related to the content of the Minister’s statement. The one person who will get a bit of leeway on that in this debate is the Chairperson of the Committee for Education, Mr Chris Lyttle.

Mr Lyttle (Committee Chair - Committee for Education): Thank you Principal Deputy Speaker, and I too thank the teachers, parents and pupils of Northern Ireland for the positive way in which they are responding to the public health emergency. Their sacrifice and compliance with social isolation and social distancing is, literally, saving lives, and we ask them to keep going.

I thank the Minister for his work on this challenging matter. The Minister has decided that grades will be based on a combination of teacher judgement, rank order of schools, statistical modelling and a resit factor. What exactly is meant by the rank order of school?

The Minister also said that grading will reflect the work that pupils have put in over recent years. Obviously, that cannot reflect the work that pupils would have done in preparation for exams, so why has the option of rescheduling examinations been discounted on this occasion?

Mr Weir: I thank the member for his comments. The member may have picked me up slightly wrong on rank order; it is rank order within in a school. So, if you are ranking a certain number of pupils in a particular subject, they are ranked. There will also be within the statistical modelling a certain level of indication of what you may call centre assessment. While we are trying to use as many statistics as possible, if the principle driver is the teacher performance, there has got to be some degree of cognisance that, while there would be very detailed guidance and it is not simply a predicted grade that will be given by CCEA to schools, it is human nature that some schools may, shall we say, treat their particular cohort of pupils either very strictly or more generously than others. So, there has got to be some level of adjustment within that. Probably the biggest single influence in this will be the teacher assessment — the grade that they will predict and notionally award for their pupil may not necessarily be the end grade, so that is why that has to be put in place.

On the other issue that the member raised about broad — preparation —

Mr Lyttle: It was about rescheduling of exams.

Mr Weir: Yes, sorry, rescheduling. That is a matter that was looked at, and there were a couple of issues.

There is, obviously, an appeals mechanism. On principle value, the issue of resits will have the most direct relevance to a university place. If we were having a full resit, it would have to be right across the board on everything available and that would introduce considerable additional cost and complexity to the system. Also, by the time that we were able to produce resits, it would be past the post for anybody who, for example, was applying to a university. So, there will be the opportunity for a resit, if anybody wants it, as part of the normal process in the summer of 2021, but there is very limited value to providing resits in the autumn.

Members will see the complexity of the arrangements that have had to be put in place. To some extent, the position in Northern Ireland, particularly around A levels, is that we have much more of a statistical database than in England because there is no progression in England, as part of the overall process, from AS level to A level. That means that we can use the AS-level information, which can then be used in statistical modelling, whereas, in England, they have to base the grades purely on teacher assessment. There is an argument that because we are producing a more complex and, indeed, more data-driven process, it necessitated resits. Effectively, however, there is a safety net on two grounds: the appeals process, which will look at whether the process has been applied correctly; and, ultimately, the summer exams in 2021.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his comprehensive statement on this very important issue. I also thank him for his time and commitment, in the most difficult of circumstances, over the last number of weeks.

Minister, the issue is vitally important to the young people, their parents and their teachers, and I take this opportunity, on behalf of my party, to thank the principals, teachers and all others in the education family for all their hard work and the responsible attitude that they have adopted over the last number of weeks. How will the appeals be considered? Will this be done by the Department of Education or CCEA? As you set out in your statement, these issues are complicated and complex. How, therefore, will the information be communicated to the learners, their families and teachers?

Mr Weir: Communication will be through CCEA whenever the detailed guidance is there. The initial stage of what has been announced today is being shared by CCEA directly to schools, more or less as we speak.

The appeals process will be organised by CCEA to ensure that we have a robust system to check the process rather than individual marking. That process will be agreed, largely speaking, to try to be aligned, as much as possible, with England and Wales so that we have a comprehensive system. It is important that there is comparability and portability, but also that our students, by way of an appeals process, are not disadvantaged in any way. Therefore, there has to be an appeals mechanism that mirrors what is in place elsewhere. If we had, for example, a more generous appeals system than in other jurisdictions, when universities are awarding places, they might assume that a grade was achieved only because of the particular appeals process. That is why the ongoing work to drill down into the detail of the appeals process will not just involve CCEA, but CCEA working closely with the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), which is the overall examinations and qualification board for the United Kingdom.

Ms Mullan: I thank the Minister for his statement and for providing clarity on the summer examination arrangements. I would also like to thank the teachers and the unions that have supported the Minister in this work.

Minister, you will be aware of the issue around the levels of attainment of working-class boys and some others. That group of students would not have had access to the level of extra tuition that some of their peers would have had throughout the year. Has consideration been given to how we can reduce the extent to which these students may be disadvantaged with regards to results and the admissions process?

Mr Weir: That is why it is vital in terms of attainment levels,. The member will note that in each of the areas where grades are going to be awarded — be it A level, AS level or GCSE — although we have statistical data that will help to refine that, a lot of it will be based on teacher judgement and teacher indication. They will know, for want of a better word, where a student has got ability but has not been given the same advantages. There is an opportunity, if you like, to trust the individual assessment of teachers to be able to provide that. That should provide balance in producing the end results.

Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for his statement and answers so far. I pay tribute to teachers, principals, pupils, parents and all who are involved in education, who have had to reconstitute their roles completely in an entirely different education environment.

Earlier today, I spoke to the principal of a major school in Armagh. The city has been a centre of education for many centuries. He expressed concern about the impact of your proposals on those from certain socioeconomic backgrounds who may not have access to IT, computers or even broadband, and how they may be disadvantaged by that particular solution. I recognise that we are in uncharted territory. However, does the solution mean that some children from certain socioeconomic backgrounds will be disadvantaged?

Can you also clarify what you mean by "recognised statistical modelling"? Thank you very much, Minister.

Mr Weir: I will deal with the latter point about the statistical model. It is a technical device that is known as z-scores. That is the modelling that is used, and is, effectively, writ large, when, every year, a certain number of pupils, for reasons outside their control, are not actually able to participate in an examination. That might be due to illness or because, for example, on the eve of the exam, there is a family bereavement and they are unable to do it. Every year, through CCEA, there is a cohort of pupils at various levels who have missed a component of their exams. Analysis of past performance enables that to be calculated out and to, effectively, replace the missing element of it.

I live in Bangor, which could compete with Armagh for the title of "land of saints and scholars", such is the background of those two great places. As the member mentioned — it comes back to the point that I made earlier to Karen Mullan — to some extent, the driver at the heart of it will be adjustments that can be made from the statistics, but teachers' assessments will be absolutely critical to all elements of it. Teachers are in a good position to be able to evaluate on the basis of trying to take into account children's socioeconomic backgrounds and attainment levels. Obviously, at the moment, one concern is the extent to which some pupils have been denied the same opportunities as others in the past few weeks. Statistics are based, largely, on historic information and what has happened until now. Therefore, to some extent, the problems of the past few weeks will not actually be to anybody's detriment. Indeed, while we all want to see as much of a return to normal as possible, there may be an argument that, with regard to coaching, which is, quite often, for the purposes of an examination, the current situation could create a more level playing field than would actually happen through examinations.

Mr Frew: I thank the Minister for his statement. Will the teachers' assessments cover a specific period, or will that be left up to teachers? If it is left up to teachers, how can the Minister ensure that there is a level playing field right across the country?

Mr Weir: There will be detailed guidance. In many ways, the teachers will have to take a holistic view. Obviously, there will be elements, particularly with regard to A levels, where there is data that can be used very specifically. Therefore, the level of data will be the driver on each element of that. CCEA will issue detailed guidance to schools on how they are to collect, format and use data, and make those assessments. No school should be in the dark about the actions that it needs to take.

Ms C Kelly: Minister, thank you for your statement. The unprecedented times that we are in mean that we have had to make decisions and policy changes very quickly and without the level of consultation that we usually insist on. Did any international examples of best practice in the provision of exams inform your approach?

Mr Weir: CCEA has, I think, examined all the evidence. Part of the problem that we all face in a range of areas is that, as she rightly mentioned, policy issues that normally make months — indeed, they would be mulled over for years and deeply consulted on — are having to be made in weeks, days or, sometimes, even in hours. On consultation, we tried to go to, for instance, the main teaching unions in particular. We had lengthy sessions with them, and with a range of other educational stakeholders, such as the Education Authority, CCMS and the ETI, to highlight, effectively, what was being proposed and to make adjustments. To be fair, although some responses expressed concerns that little adjustments were needed, nobody felt that the direction of travel was wrong.

On consultation, I should say, for balance, that one criticism was that principals in England were able to announce their approach a week or two ago. We took a little longer because we wanted to make sure, as far as possible, that we had something that was fit for purpose and that we could bring people along. The A-level situation in England, because the AS level is entirely decoupled, was that the data-driven option was not there. Therefore, England was left with one option. It is very easy to make a decision when you have only one choice that can be made.

I should also say, as my statement mentions briefly, that, in arriving at this position, a range of options was developed and was available for each of the four cohorts. All were assessed against the key criteria. The option that produced the best possible outcome overall when judged against those criteria was selected. This has all been very carefully thought through, and the advice of others has been fully taken into account.

Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his statement. My question relates to A2 students who are finishing this year. Will there be any disadvantage to students from Northern Ireland who apply to universities in other parts of the United Kingdom?

Mr Weir: No. Universities have accepted and recognise the methodologies being used. There are particular Northern Ireland nuances, but we are probably in a position that is very akin to that of Wales, and our approach is very similar. England is slightly different, but we do not envisage any disadvantage to anybody seeking a university place. I was pressing on this, as was the Welsh Government in particular, to try to ensure that, in as regulated a way as possible, all results will come out at the same time. That is also important. Only today, I think, has full agreement been reached that there will be a situation in which A-level results will come out on 13 August. Similarly, that agreement will apply to other results. That means that, when it comes to competing for university places, everyone should, as far as possible, be on a level playing field.

Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his statement. I echo his heartfelt comments to the families recently bereaved through the pandemic.

Minister, your statement refers to this being pupil-focused, as you said repeatedly at the Education Committee, and I thank you for that. You said that there was a consultative process with the teaching unions. I was looking at the potential difficulties arising from this process. One that often raises its head is the pressure that is put on teachers. Teachers will now have predicted grades thrust upon them. Did the teaching unions raise any concerns about the pressures that teachers will find themselves facing?

Mr Weir: Meetings were held with different groups across the board, including the teacher unions. General issues and concerns and nuances were raised, and we have tried to build those in. I do not think that there was any particular disagreement with the general direction of travel and route that we have taken. One of the concerns will be to try to protect teachers both in terms of their workload — inevitably, this will involve a certain amount of additional work — and, as we have indicated, by ensuring that confidentiality is built into the grades that teachers give at least up to that point; indeed, there is provision for that under the regulations. Data protection is an issue that is being looked at on a UK-wide basis, because, again, we want to make sure that this is as robust a process as possible and one that does not sustain any form of malpractice or outside pressure.

Ms Anderson: I thank the Minister for his statement. I also express our condolences to all those who have died in hospital or care settings from the deadly COVID-19 virus.

Minister, I listened intently to what you said about the students of 2020 not being disadvantaged and having to move on with their lives. You then answered some colleagues' questions on universities. There will be more demand from students on our local universities because of everything that has happened. I would like to ask you about the collaborative work that is going on. You mentioned the Minister for the Economy. It will be crucial that you work together so that those students are not disadvantaged. You will not be surprised that Karen Mullan and I have focused primarily on Magee. We are looking at the medical school, and, God knows, we need it now more than ever. We have an excellent facility there for nursing students. For the students of 2020 whom you spoke about, it would be good to get an understanding of the work that is going on between the two Ministers to make sure that they are not discriminated against or disadvantaged.

Mr Weir: There is close cooperation. Obviously, Economy has the lead on university places and will do the more detailed work on that. It will also have to be done on a cross-jurisdictional basis. I appreciate that there are particular issues with Magee, and work has been done on that between the Economy Minister and the Health Minister. The fact is that all 2020 students are in a similar position. I mentioned one of the criteria being limiting the impact: part of that is about ensuring that the knock-on impact on 2020 students is kept to a minimum in respect of not just university places — for the most part, those competing for university places in the autumn of 2020 will be from the same cohort — but the jobs market in the years ahead. Somebody who left school in 2020 must not be seen as the poor relation. That is why we wanted to ensure that what was there was as robust as possible and did not lead to people having to play some level of catch-up. Inevitably, it is difficult to take any action without there being some forward impact, and that will be the case for many aspects of this. Fairness is probably the overriding impact issue. With those four criteria, we try to protect the 2020 cohort as much as possible.

Mr O'Toole: Thank you to the Minister for giving us an update. I echo his words on teachers, who have been very flexible and shown real leadership during the crisis.

Further to some of the previous questions, I want to ask him about conversations that his Department has had with UCAS on unconditional offers. Others have asked about that, and I know that university and HE policy sits with the Department for the Economy, but, clearly, this needs a joined-up approach. I understand that UCAS has extended the moratorium on unconditional offers. How has his Department engaged with UCAS in managing that process? How will that be communicated in a joined-up way to students who will be looking at this and thinking, "What does this mean for me in terms of how I interact with UCAS?"?

Mr Weir: The principal point of contact with UCAS is through my colleague at the Department for the Economy. What is important and where UCAS have a critical role to play is that we do not want to see the universities have a competitive race against each other with a danger of a race to the bottom in wanting to suck in as many students as they can.

One area where there is a worry across the board in universities is that they will have difficulty in filling spaces in 2020, both because one of the impacts may be a damaging of the international market and because there may be a general perception across the world, in the UK and in the Republic that maybe it is best to hold off for a year, so that there will be higher proportion of students wanting to defer. Therefore, there is a degree of danger that universities try to act unilaterally, and UCAS is the key body that is trying to hold those together.

There is a wider conversation to be held about what support can be there for universities. As I said, if they feel that, economically, they could be in great difficulties next year, in the wider context that is something that is done not just on a Northern Ireland-wide basis but on a cross-jurisdictional basis.

Mr Nesbitt: I want to return to the idea that teachers will play a key role in the alternative form of assessment. The Minister said:

"This is, I believe, the right approach to take. Who knows better the aptitudes, abilities and educational achievements of these young people?".

When that regime was proposed as an alternative to an 11-plus style exam in choosing pupils post-primary school, teachers were dead set against that proposal. Are teachers entirely comfortable with this? Does it set a precedent of some sort?

Mr Weir: It is normally John O’Dowd who raises the 11-plus. I do not know whether the Member for Strangford is acting as a proxy on that.

I do not think that it sets a precedent for anything. It is undoubtedly the case that there has been consultation and work with the teacher unions. I think that all of us would accept that not only is this not the perfect solution, it is not something that would be put in place in normal times. However, it is clear that the principal driver, in terms of that level of knowledge, are teachers. This is a bespoke solution that is trying to deal with the overwhelmingly different circumstances that we face following the coronavirus. Therefore, I do not think it is right and would not like to see read-across into other situations. It is about trying to provide the best possible solutions in incredibly difficult circumstances.

At some stage, I am sure, the House will have debates during this term about what is done about post-primary transfer. We may all take our different positions on that. This is principally focused on students from years 11 to 14 and the particular solutions that are required in what, we hope, is a unique year. We hope that this will not have to be revisited next year or the year after. We hope that we are into brighter times by that stage.

Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome his attendance here.

Minister, you touched on England and Wales in your statement and your comments since: is the model that you have outlined today consistent in approach to the model that has been adopted in others places in the UK?

Mr Weir: Scotland is in a slightly different position because they have Highers and students are at different ages when they reach that point. Effectively, their university students start more or less a year earlier.

There has been close work by CCEA with Ofqual. We are in a different position in Northern Ireland, particularly as regards our A levels and the data that can be produced. The major contrast is the connection between AS results and A levels, whereas, in England, there is no relationship between the two. To that extent, it is about getting something that is fit for purpose for Northern Ireland but trying to get as much compatibility as possible. From that point of view, England is in a slightly different position from the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland and Wales have adopted a similar approach and there are similar positions between those jurisdictions, but all three are largely compatible, at least, with each other, and there is portability of exam results with those organisations.

It should also be indicated that, as I mentioned, there will be a minority of students whose grades will come through boards that are based in England or Wales. That will be governed by the regulations that are there.

Mr Boylan: I also thank the Minister for his statement. I just want to go back to the appeal process and the fact that, obviously, we could see a high volume of appeals. Is there independent oversight? What would that look like? Can you define exactly what the process is now, typically and normally, against what will come from this?

Mr Weir: There will be more work to be done on the appeal process because we want to make sure that the process is compatible with what happens elsewhere. As I said, it is about ensuring that our students are not put at a disadvantage by having something radically different from what happens elsewhere. If we had a more generous position on appeals, that could count against our pupils because it might be regarded that they had, if you like, an easier route. That will be something that does not entirely stand alone in Northern Ireland; there will have to be continuing work by CCEA with Ofqual to develop that for the autumn. It will be largely based on process issues rather than someone simply saying, "I should really have got a better grade. I have much greater ability than that", partly because the appeals process is likely to report for individuals in the autumn period. There is not a particularly great advantage to that individual in getting a change at that point, because the key point of entry will be for the following year for entry to university and students will also have an opportunity to take those examinations again.

Clearly, it will want to identify if there has been a flaw in the process, if there has been, for example, some problem in the data going from the school to CCEA or there has been some fundamental mistake made in that. The grounds for those appeals will likely be relatively narrow, but, as I said, we have the second safety net of students being able to do a resit. Particularly for years 11 and 13, there is a retrospective fitting from next year's exams and the routes which they go down; if they go down both routes, the higher of those results will apply to them.

Ms Armstrong: I declare an interest as the mother of a year 13 pupil. Minister, a number of students will be very happy with you today; some will not be so happy. I know that, in my day, when you did mocks they usually marked them hard. There is no way that I would have got the grades that I got in the end if that had not scared the life out of me.

I will get to my question. Minister, CCEA obviously provided you with options, and you have taken the decision that you have taken. Can you outline what those options were and whether they were equality impact-assessed? On the basis of an equality impact assessment, normally, at this time of the year, teachers are preparing pupils for post-primary transfer. Will you take forward legislation to cancel that exam in the autumn? The GCSE, A2 and AS have been cancelled now. Let us have fairness for those P7 pupils.

Mr Weir: I will respond to a couple of points that have been raised.

With regard to options, obviously, there are bespoke solutions to each of the four bits. There was a range of options for each of those. For example, some could have involved almost purely statistical data, and some would have involved looking purely at the teacher bit. From memory, I think that, in each of the four areas, there was a minimum of three options provided. Each of those was then assessed against the four criteria of fairness, reducing the burden on the overall system, limiting the impact on a future position and providing certainty. Effectively, there was a form of scoring mechanism and almost a sort of traffic light system for whether it was "Good", "Fair" or "Poor". The option in each case that came forward was then the recommendation from CCEA. I also had the full scoring mechanism of each of those, so I was able to go through each of those myself.

In each case, I agreed with the preferred option that came from CCEA because, ultimately, it seemed to score best.

I do not intend to bring forward legislation on the post-primary transfer test. There are many things on which the House will agree and many on which it will not. I think that the post-primary transfer test might be the holy grail when it comes to seeking agreement, even with the best will in the world. As I am sure that the member is acutely aware, the post-primary examinations, which pupils can take or not, are offered by two private organisations, the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) and the Association for Quality Education (AQE). From that point of view, the Department and I have no control over them. The extent to which I could prevent a private organisation doing a particular thing would be questionable anyway. Part of that would be based on an assessment of the timescale. The exams are normally scheduled for November. It is up to those organisations whether they would happen on the same timescale.

Part of the issue is the immediacy; the fact that students would have been going into exams in May and June. If, for example, we had had a situation in which the academic year followed the calendar year, I suspect that the decisions that are being made would not necessarily have happened on the same timescale and may not have happened at all, because there would have been time, if you like, for things to correct themselves. On 19 March, the decision was issued that there would not be examinations. It was important that, as soon as was practicable, arrangements were put in place. In particular, I felt that it was important that we did not have that uncertainty. If, for example, we had carried on hoping that exams would take place, and then, effectively, for want of a better term, pulled the rug from under people's feet at the end of April and said that, given the circumstances, they could not actually take place, that would have been wrong as well. At this stage, I do not see any particular correlation between that and the post-primary transfer test.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his statement. The statement and discussion have been on academic qualifications and achievement. We have to recognise that it is an extremely stressful time for many young students. There is a lot of anxiety and confusion, and, I know — I have my own son — a lot of regret as well. There is also new pressure on teachers. It is a challenging time for them. They are still dealing with the new challenge of remote learning. Now, they will have that huge responsibility put on them to virtually dictate the future choices of their students or pupils. Has the Department or the Education Authority considered what additional support can be given to those whose mental well-being has taken a bit of a battering at this time, and how that support can be accessed?

Mr Weir: I am very cognisant of the issue of mental well-being. As part of that, we are looking at what additional support can be provided in general; particularly for young people but also for teachers. Sometimes, the focus, very understandably, is on young people and we almost ignore the well-being of teachers. Moving forward, we need to look at what support can be provided next year against all the uncertainty that there is with regard to budgetary constraints.

Undoubtedly, in the current situation, we are looking at academic results. We have been able to bring in elements of data that can assist. If specific support is needed, as CCEA develops the process and works through it with schools, it will be given. In many cases, it is about actually using what is there at present. It will not be about finding any additional material but collating what is there. While that will create additional pressure on the teaching workforce, which I acknowledge entirely, it is not a unique situation. We are seeing it in other jurisdictions, where, perhaps, they do not have the data and can only, if you like, fall back on teachers' assessments. From that point of view, I appreciate that it is a very tough time for everybody.

Mr Beggs: I thank the Minister for his statement and for his attempts to resolve this conundrum: the difficulty that the educational establishment faces as a result of the imposition of social-distancing requirements to protect our young people and, indeed, the entire community.

Minister, you highlighted on a number of occasions today that teachers will play a vital role in this assessment. Can you advise when CCEA will give them detailed guidance so that they know what exactly is expected of them and when they will need to start to carry out their work to ensure that this vital work is done in an efficient manner?

Mr Weir: I am not saying that there will not be different layers of this at various times, but my understanding is that detailed guidance from CCEA to schools, which also relates to teachers, is going out today. I felt that it was important that, when a statement was being made in connection to this, everything had been brought into line so that it was not a question of my simply saying this in the Assembly. I appreciate that it is undoubtedly the case that my direct accountability is to the Assembly. Therefore, the Assembly had to hear this first. However, I also wanted to ensure that there was no gap between what I was saying and what CCEA was doing, so those two things have been aligned. As part of the detailed guidance, we will give a window of opportunity in which schools need to get information to CCEA. The detailed format of that will also be made clear to schools.

Miss Woods: Will the results that students receive, as outlined by the Minister, be capped in any way by the proportion of grades awarded to a school's students in previous years?

Mr Weir: Are they capped?

Miss Woods: Will the grades that were given to a school's cohort in the previous year create a cap? Does that mean that a school's grades cannot go up or down at all?

Mr Weir: I am not sure that there will be a specific cap, as such. What will be taken into account is the statistical modelling of a centre's performance. That has more to do with the fact that, as I said, although very clear guidance and instructions as to how this is to be done will be given to schools, we are talking, ultimately, about people making individual assessments. I am sure that anyone who has been on a panel and scored someone as part of an interview process will have found that, although the rankings created were similar, some people were more generous in their assessment than others. Therefore, this modelling takes account of that. CCEA will develop quite a sophisticated statistical model. Ultimately, what is important is that there is comparability across the whole system so that no student is advantaged or disadvantaged. That is not simply within Northern Ireland; it applies to all who are, for instance, competing for university places.

Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for his statement. I join others in offering my condolences to the families of everybody who has died so far. During this meeting, I heard that today's death toll is the highest. I offer my sympathies to everybody.

My understanding, from what the Minister said, is that AS-level students will get a predicted grade that will not count towards their final A-level grade. Is that accurate? Can I get some clarity on that? Is the Minister confident that teachers will be protected from any accusations of unfairness or bias that might arise from this process? Is he confident that mechanisms are in place to seriously mitigate, if not stop, such accusations?

Mr Weir: I will pick up on the latter point. There are two aspects to that. There is a particular provision — a legal determination — to ensure that teachers' confidentiality is protected in the grading system. There are derogations that can and will be put in place. Across the UK, the wider context that will have to be considered is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and freedom of information, because that is UK-wide legislation. That is being looked at across the jurisdictions. It is critical for teachers that their judgement is protected and that there are no potential repercussions. Teachers are a key component in being able to put this in place, but the position is not theirs alone.

Will the member remind me of his first question?

Mr Carroll: AS-level students.

Mr Weir: The position is that there is effectively a form of decoupling for one year. It will stand alone and, therefore, somebody could simply leave with an AS level if they want. There is not that direct linkage for every student anyway but there is for the vast bulk of students in Northern Ireland, and that is where we differ. The point is that, if someone is carrying on to their A2 level, the AS level can then be effectively retrofitted, for want of a better word. There is the opportunity either to sit those particular parts of it in 2021 or have a retrospective side of things. However, it does not become an automatic component that will lead simply to an A level.

This process has actually shown the advantage of the linkage between the AS- and A-level grades that Northern Ireland and Wales have operated. That linkage has enabled data to be put in place that is helpful. It has given us options that have not been available in England. However, realistically, this year, we are left with no other choice than to do that decoupling on the award of the AS level.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Thank you, Minister. I am mindful of the fact that we have about 17 minutes left.

Mr Weir: Do not tell me you are going to sing a song.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): No. As was the case in the previous session, if any member who has a pressing question that they wish to ask the Minister rises in their place, I will call them.

Ms Armstrong: Thank you very much, Minister; hopefully this is not too difficult. I asked about the 11-plus earlier. The reason why I brought it up is because I am very aware that we have key workers in society who are not at home with their children and are not able to hothouse them in the way that some others who have been furloughed or are working from have been. My concern is that, while there are children who are being prepared for the 11-plus test later in the year, our key workers — the very people who are keeping us alive, protecting our society and delivering essential services — are at work at the moment and not at home with their children. That is why I am asking for consideration in the 2020 cohort for next year's P7s. We need to consider the children of those essential workers.

Mr Weir: I understand that. Obviously, the tests are external to government and the Department of Education. I am sure that AQE and PPTC will give that detailed consideration. I appreciate that this is not an area where there is consensus, but there is a strong desire among quite a lot of people to retain academic selection. Schools will have to make a choice come the summer of 2021. Something that has perhaps not been touched on as yet is that there is likely to be some difficulty or disruption in placements into post-primary schools this year. We want to minimise the time frame in relation to that.

Ultimately, AQE and PPTC have ownership of those tests. I do not believe that it is my place to try to abolish those tests or create some one-year difference in them. Unfortunately, in life — education reflects this — there will always be an advantage for those who have financial resources and are able to throw that the way of additional tutoring or whatever. One of the decisions that I made in a previous incarnation was to remove any particular memo or restriction on schools being able to prepare their own pupils, because that undoubtedly created a less of a level playing field. We will not be in a perfect position on this issue, but I do not intend to bring legislation to abolish academic selection, even on a temporary basis.

Mr Lyttle: The Minister cited cost complexity and the university application process deadlines as reasons for discounting a rescheduling of exams to, for example, August. Can the Minister go into a bit more detail as to why those issues could not be overcome?

Mr Weir: On rescheduling — sorry. I am talking about resits in the autumn. England is in a slightly different position from us because they are having to rely purely on teacher assessment with no data.

It likely that England will have some form of resits in the autumn. The point that I am making around that is that if universities, for instance, are making their admissions around about the same time, it could have an impact on autumn resits on a cohort entering in 2021. However, there will be the opportunity for pupils to take an examination again prior to the entries for 2021.

The issue is that because our data and our process, essentially, are more robust than elsewhere, we would have had to be able to provide resits for every pupil in every subject, driven by CCEA and others, which would have a cost element. Also, because students will have the opportunity to sit the exams in the summer of 2021, it would be a cost for something that would be of negligible benefit to pupils. That is on the basis of strong advice from CCEA and from discussing that with others.

I appreciate that some members have raised the issue of consultation. There has been, in contact from young people, no appetite for autumn resits or a postponement of exams to the autumn. It is an issue of the practical difficulties and the costs. Depending on how things go, because nobody can know the passage of the virus over the next period, we might find ourselves in a situation in the autumn, having set up exams in September or October time, with a second wave of the virus, meaning that we then have to have to come up with a further set of exams.

All these things can be kept under review, but I am not convinced of the merits of a separate resit in the autumn. I do not think that it would particularly benefit people but it would add cost and complexity to the situation.

Mr O'Toole: My question follows on from the Minister's remarks. While Ministers in the Executive have said in the past day or two, and I agree with them, that it is premature to start talking about when restrictions are lifted, it is also the case that, as he just mentioned, although we all hope and pray that the restrictions will be eased at some point, and sooner rather than later, there could be a second wave. Is his Department thinking about and planning how social distancing will be implemented inside schools and classrooms? It is unlikely that schools will return before the end of the academic year — the Minister has been clear about that, and I think that that is probably the right way to go — but, with his officials and the unions, is he thinking about how social-distancing measures can be implemented come September?

Mr Weir: That goes wider than the examination issue, but, as we move ahead, we will be looking to scope out how business can reopen in that broader sense. One of the issues that make that uncertain is — this is the view of those who have a much higher level of expertise than I have — that it may not necessarily be a linear move to a greater level of normality. It might involve some things that are geographically specific. It might mean that, to some extent, although restrictions will need to be kept tight in some areas of life, they might ease in other areas. It might also be the case, to some extent, that to be able to manage that in the best possible way, the tap will almost need to be turned on and off at various stages. All those things must be taken into account, and I will work with Executive colleagues, driven by health considerations in particular, to see how best they can be.

Thinking is ongoing, but I do not think that anybody wants to send out the signal that this is the time for a particular shift in opinion. As we have seen, and as the Executive have indicated, at a minimum, the lockdown will be in place for the next three weeks. I suspect that all of us anticipate that it will probably continue for a longer period. We are living in a very fluid situation where things can go, at times, in different directions. We have to be able to remain cognisant so that we can scope ahead and scenario plan to work out the best options at particular times.

Mr McNulty: I put on record my sincere condolences to the 18 families who have today lost loved ones to COVID-19.

Minister, you have put forward bold proposals around examinations. I know that it is uncharted territory and that there are no simple solutions.

Maybe a more pressing matter is the issue of vulnerable and at-risk children. I have raised it on numerous occasions over the last number of weeks. What liaison has your Department had with Barnardo's, Childline or other statutory agencies to try to ensure that every child is safe in their own home?

Mr Weir: I appreciate that it may be straying a little outside the remit of the statement to deal specifically with that, but the member will be aware that there is ongoing work. As part of that, we are working, particularly with Health, to get full and detailed guidance. We are also working with outside agencies. As I have indicated, I have written directly to schools to encourage them to reach out to vulnerable children. This is not just a local problem; it occurs [Inaudible.]

I hope to be able to raise it to see where there is best practice. The next four nations summit on education will be next Wednesday. We will have an interesting conversation about what is happening with regard to vulnerable children in other jurisdictions, so that we can all learn as best we can from each other's experiences.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): No other members have indicated that they wish to ask a question. I thank the Minister for his statement and answers. Given the amount of concern that there was in the public about the matter, it is to the Minister's credit that he came to the House to make the statement rather than issuing a press release at 9.00 this morning that would have dominated the news headlines. He showed the House the courtesy to which it is entitled. I thank him for that.

Mr Weir: Are you saying that I could have dominated the news headlines?

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Uh-huh. As long as it is for the right reasons and not the wrong ones.

Agenda item 4 is the date, time and place of our next meeting. We have yet to receive confirmation from the Executive about when Ministers will next come to make a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee. As soon as that confirmation has been received, written notification of the time, date and place of the next meeting will be issued to members in the usual way. However, I remind members that a plenary session of the Assembly is scheduled to take place on 21 April and that Ministers may continue to make oral statements to the Assembly on sitting days.

That concludes the meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee. The meeting is adjourned. Stay safe, and God bless.

Find Your MLA


Locate your local MLA.

Find MLA

News and Media Centre


Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly


Keep up to date with what’s happening at the Assem

Find out more



Enter your email address to keep up to date.

Sign up