GCSE and A Level Reform in Northern Ireland: A Wallace High School Perspective

Written by | News, Principal

It has been clear for some time that a divergence of the regions of the UK in terms of educational assessment was likely. At Wallace we have been preparing for this eventuality now for some time in our curriculum planning.

Two years ago, when our planning came to its fruition and actual curriculum changes were made, only a very small number of our subject departments were still availing of the services of non-CCEA examination boards. Interestingly for Wallace, it was also in these subjects that the examination results were slightly below or only marginally above the NI average for similar grammar schools.

So, whilst the change was a reaction in some ways to the inevitable political decision to make NI stand alone as an educational entity, the change also served the school’s purpose of striving to have results, for our students, which are well above the NI average for similar grammar schools, in all subjects.

From September 2016 all GCSE and AS courses offered here are CCEA examined. CCEA is the local examination board. I have read in some commentaries in the press that the inevitable ‘monopoly situation’ created by the political decision to retain the use of grades in the assessment of GCSEs and to retain the AS qualification (albeit as 40% of the final A Level) will have a detrimental effect on the examining process in NI. My experience personally, across 5 schools, of non-CCEA examination boards, has not been wholly positive. Whilst many aspects of their specifications seem flexible and innovative, in reality the support and feedback for teachers and the centres of which I have experience has been either lacking or poor in quality. Whilst no examination board is perfect, having local officers on the ground who can visit schools, a Senior Management Team in CCEA who visit schools and are accessible public figures, known to educationalists, is a distinct advantage, from my experience.

The concept of the potential ‘monopolisation’ of the GCSE, AS and A2 examinations in NI is an interesting concept to explore further. The UK examination system is unique in many ways. Although now diverging to 4 distinct regions with the following systems, this element of choice from among a range of regulated examination boards is a relatively unique one. The majority of other countries have one system of state run examinations only. The four distinct regions will now move forward as follows:


“How will UK Universities cope?” is another frequently aired question. It is worth remembering that universities in the UK accept students from a range of educational backgrounds – from non-UK countries, mature students in the UK, etc. Admissions Officers are experienced professionals with an expert knowledge of the range of education systems and associated examinations, across the globe. Whilst many are exercised by how a university will align a Grade 9 GCSE in England with an A* in N Ireland, I offer, for example raw marks and uniform mark scales as two among many comparative instruments a university may employ. Therefore, achieving 9 good GCSEs and 3 good A Levels is still an important goal for students in Northern Ireland who wish to progress to university. Let’s be clear, UCAS, the UK university application body, has always valued AS grades as a useful interim indicator of progress between GCSE and A Level. Doubtless the availability of AS grades for NI students applying will serve to support their applications, not hinder them. These can easily be woven into the body of the reference if no longer required on the standard application form.

In conclusion, at Wallace, we are more concerned about preparing ourselves for the change than fighting it. This is an unprecedented time of curriculum change for teachers. If teaching a new CCEA AS specification this year, then a new one follows the next year. My focus will be on engaging with CCEA to try to negotiate (a) effective training for teachers which is appropriately placed in the school year, and (b) an open dialogue about any concerns we have and internally we shall plan Staff Development Days for teachers to familiarise themselves with the new specifications and assessment criteria.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Barack Obama.

Last modified: March 7, 2017