Before I move on to the main item of today's business, Members, I will make some introductory remarks on the upcoming debate before formally commencing it shortly. Members will be aware that we announced the establishment of a Youth Assembly, here, in the Chamber, in July. In the past week, we have heard the voices of many young people on the matters that we are gathered to discuss today. It is not for me, of course, to comment on the issues involved this afternoon, and we are clearly in very unusual and challenging times, but I have role in being concerned about how the Assembly is perceived and in building public confidence in this institution. Today, there may be many people watching our business for the first time, and I therefore ask all Members to bear that in mind in how we conduct this very important debate.
The Assembly was recalled today on the basis of a motion with cross-party support. Clearly, circumstances have changed significantly since the original motion was tabled. I want to record slight disappointment that, this morning, I was in a position of having to select between a number of amendments, which, for the most part, shared common principles. I think that it would have helped proceedings today, and would have sent a much more positive message, had a cross-party amendment been presented to update the motion. I do not want to dwell on that now, but I ask all parties to reflect on that for the future.
We are mindful that there are many young people of a new generation watching today who have a direct interest in these issues, so let us ensure that the debate is constructive and informative from their perspective. On that basis, Members, I will move on to the one substantive motion on the Order Paper, the motion on the AS-level and A-Level grading crisis.
I beg to move
That this Assembly is deeply concerned that the modelling used to calculate grades for AS levels and A levels has awarded incorrect results for students across Northern Ireland; and calls on the Minister of Education to award students the highest of their AS, teacher-predicted or CCEA grades for A levels, AS levels and GCSEs due to exceptional Covid-19 circumstances.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome you back to your duties after being off for a few months and I wish you well in resuming those duties. I also thank the Assembly and parties for supporting the recall petition that I felt was so absolutely necessary in order to have the debate today.
I will start by —.
I beg to move the amendment
Leave out all after "Northern Ireland" and insert: "; welcomes the Minister of Education’s intervention to base GCSE grades on teacher-predicted grades; and calls on the Minister to apply the same logic and approach so that A-level and AS-level students are awarded the highest of their AS, teacher-predicted or CCEA grades due to exceptional Covid-19 circumstances; recognises the immense stress, anxiety and disruption this has caused many students; further recognises the resultant implications for local colleges and universities; and calls on the Minister to work urgently with Executive colleagues to provide clarity and guidance to students and educational institutions.”
Thank you for your kind words. By convention, when a Member or a Minister seeks to amend their own motion, they are invited to address both the motion and the amendment within the 10 minutes that are allocated to them. Therefore, you will have 10 minutes to address both the motion and the amendment. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Before I speak on the motion and the amendment, it is important to follow on from the comments made by the Speaker in relation to the former SDLP leader, MEP, MP, MLA and peacemaker, John Hume. It was with great sadness that we learned of John's death . He had been unwell for some time, as many will have known. Unfortunately, in the circumstances that we faced during COVID, we could not give John the send-off that we would have liked, albeit that he got a really lovely send-off in his home city of Derry. I know that many would have loved to have lined the streets, paid tribute to him and comforted his family, and many would have loved to have said thank you to John for the huge sacrifices that he made that, undoubtedly and absolutely, benefited each and every one of us and the children of this society. I welcome the Speaker's confirmation that we will have an opportunity in September, hopefully, to pay tribute to him. He was of such significance to this place that only history will properly reflect it.
Mr Speaker, I asked for the support of parties to recall the Assembly today, very importantly to ensure that the concerns shared by young people, parents, teachers and the public across Northern Ireland could be heard and that we, as a House, could speak and act on that. I am delighted, however, that, late yesterday, the Minister moved from his original position to a position that we had discussed in detail over the course of the past months, particularly in the past week. What happened this week to 28,000 of our young people, particularly the 11,000 students and young people who had their grades downgraded, was unforgivable. The system failed them incredibly, and after —.
I will, shortly.
After months of warning the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) and the Minister about the concerns that were being shared with me, I was very frustrated to see that the Minister and the chief executive of CCEA were adamant that they would continue, quite determinedly, down the line that they were going, which has absolutely disadvantaged quite a number of young people.
I thank the various parties that signed the recall petition. It is vital that we are having the debate, and although the debate has shifted somewhat, serious issues remain that must be addressed.
The reality of the situation that we are in today is that young people in our respective constituencies, whom we represent, have been let down and failed. I welcome very strongly the Minister's move, in the first half of the day, on GCSE and, in the second half of the day, on A level and AS level. I just regret that it did not happen sooner and that the concerns and worries of young people, teachers and academics across Northern Ireland and further afield were ignored.
I raised considerable concerns with the Minister and CCEA, as did others. David Canning has been a huge support and help to me in that regard. At a very early stage, when exams were cancelled, we realised that there would be huge difficulties in trying to roll out the system. It is a system that has failed and confirmed our worst concerns. The reality is that young people will pay the price for that.
Minister, I am glad that you have moved, but I regret that it took Boris Johnson or London to move first. That really begs this question of the House: are we here as public representatives of the people of the North of Ireland, Northern Ireland or whatever you want to call it? Are we here to represent them, or are we to take our lead from London? Are we here to put first the best interests of our young people and teachers, or are we to follow the British Government and their agenda? There are really serious questions about what has happened here. Yes, we are in a better position today than we were in yesterday, but huge damage has still been caused. Damage has been caused to the mental health of young people. Teachers have been offended and annoyed.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He is, obviously, a member of the Education Committee. Does he recall, on 22 April — this is in Hansard — that his description of the model that was put in place was a:
"complex fix ... to what is a very difficult situation"?
If it was a "fix" on 22 April, how can you say that you were warning about it for months?
Thanks very much for your intervention. You will note — this has been acknowledged by the Minister and the chief executive of CCEA — that I have raised considerable concerns about it. Throughout the past few months that have led to today, I was told by the chief executive and the Minister that it was a work in progress and that they would get a model that, they felt, would work. It turned out, from information that was received shortly after that date, that that was not going to be the case. From that, I raised concerns over Zoom with Justin Edwards, the chief executive, and I realised at that stage that we were on a slippery slope.
The reality is that, even given all the concerns that were raised, the Minister and Justin Edwards, the chief executive of CCEA, were determined to see that system out, to die in a ditch for a model that was untried and untested and to stand by an algorithm that no one has even seen. That brings me to a fundamental point: I asked on Friday, as I have done for months, for the algorithm to be produced for checking. We are now sitting on Tuesday and the public have not yet had sight of it. Why is there a huge cloak of secrecy surrounding the processes of CCEA? There are serious questions about the processes that determined grades — they have not been checked — and dismissed the judgement of teachers. I had to listen all week to Justin Edwards, the chief executive, saying that teachers' judgement could not be trusted. However, early yesterday morning, the Minister said that we could trust teachers' judgement when it came to GCSEs. Then, by 4.00 pm, it was, "We'll trust teachers' judgement in terms of A level and AS level now as well". How our teachers have been treated is intolerable and unacceptable.
The House needs to do what is right for the people whom we represent, not follow London. Have we learned nothing from the chaos of Brexit or the Government? It is vital that, at all times, we put the interests of the people whom we represent first. That brings me to an important point: I want the Minister to tell us whether he will produce the formula or algorithm to the public to be checked. That is what caused the situation to begin with. It is a situation that downgraded students from a grade C to a U, and then, at 7.00 pm on the night before the results were released to young people, they were told that it was an anomaly. Young people are not anomalies. Their futures cannot be hung in the balance of an algorithm that has not been tried or tested.
Our Minister stood firmly, even on Friday, defending the system, but here we are today. I will say again that I welcome it. Our young people are relieved; they are happy that we are in this situation. The reality is that, when it comes to university places, a huge number of our young people have been rejected. Again, on Friday at the Committee for Education, the Minister told me that he was assured by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) that young people would not lose university places. That was incorrect. I was not out of the Chamber two minutes before a spate of emails told me otherwise. Who is advising the Minister on this? He is severely off-track.
I also welcome the Minister's apology, given publicly to teachers and young people, but, Minister, we need to go further. We need to guarantee, as an Executive, that our young people will get the places that they should have and not suffer at the hands of a system that failed them, let them down and was defended by you, Minister, and Justin Edwards, the chief executive.
Does the Member agree that the last week has caused significant stress and anxiety for our students across Northern Ireland that will, undoubtedly, have a detrimental impact on their well-being? Does he also agree that it is vital that we give them extra resources during this challenging time?
I thank the Member for her intervention. Yes, young people have suffered incredibly. GPs and the mental health champion have talked about the impact on the mental health of our young people. That is an unforgivable situation, Minister. An apology will not suffice, but action will. Moving now to rectify the issues and ensure university places for our young people is key in all of this, as well as transparency around the processes by which determinations were reached that outflanked the judgement of teachers.
I commend the motion and the amendment to the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is nice to see you in the Chair. It is also nice for me to be here after isolation.
As already alluded to many times in the Chamber, we are in unprecedented times and have been forced into making unprecedented decisions, none more so than those that affect our economy, our health system and, most importantly, our education system. In an ideal world, young people would have been able to sit their examinations as normal. However, we are not in an ideal world, and the recent method of grading examination results has left many young anxious, distressed and angry. Those feelings have been replicated by parents and teachers alike. I congratulate the Minister and his staff for their efforts over the past few days. It was a case of "You cannot do right for doing wrong", and I am pleased that the Minister has listened to the concerns outlined by students and teachers throughout Northern Ireland.
There was never going to be a perfect solution. Despite the stress that exams bring, I am sure that our young people would have preferred to sit their exams, but, for this year, that was never going to be the case. There is no doubt that we are in unusual times, and, hopefully, we never have a year like this again. Like other Members, I have been contacted by parents, students and teachers outlining their concerns about the awarding of A level and AS level grades this year. It is only fair that those students are treated the same as GCSE pupils and awarded the grades predicted by their teachers. The Minister's decision to revert to the predicted grades is correct. I have every faith in our teachers. They have been working hard with their students to prepare them for exams for the past two years, if not longer. They know their strengths and what is achievable. I have no doubt that the prediction of grades was a difficult process for teaching staff. They did not make those decisions easily, and we should thank our teachers for all their hard work in preparing their students.
From the outset, it was clear that Minister Weir did not want our young people to be disadvantaged, and that needs to be highlighted. Minister Weir's announcement brings Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK and, most importantly, means that our young people will not be disadvantaged. The past few days have caused huge distress to thousands of young people. For many, their plans have been scrapped, and others have had to rethink their future. We are in difficult times, and we hope that we will not be placed in a scenario like this again. However, I reach out to the young people and ask them to be patient.
In closing, I ask the Minister and his officials to look at the pupils who are content with their grades, to ensure that the new method of grading will not disadvantage them in any way, and to set up urgent dialogue with universities to ensure that there are places available and that appropriate finances are available for students who wish to attend university here, on the mainland, in Europe or in the Republic of Ireland.
It is good to see you back.
I speak in support of the motion and the amendment. I acknowledge the deep upset, distress, frustration and anxiety that have burdened thousands of our young people over the last week. This time of year is usually difficult enough for many, but the way in which this debacle has played out in the context of truly exceptional circumstances has compounded the distress and upset of those young people.
Young people have sacrificed an awful lot throughout this global health pandemic, and it is important that we recognise that. The very least that they deserved in the absence of the usual exam process was a system that was fair and transparent and that recognised their hard work, ability and potential in the subjects that they had elected to take. Unfortunately and unacceptably, students were failed in that regard.
Like other Members, I have had numerous phone calls and contacts over the last week from distraught students, concerned parents and frustrated principals and teachers. There was understandable and warranted shock and disappointment at how the process, which was designed to standardise results, could downgrade over 11,000 A-level grades, completely throwing the professional judgements of our teachers to one side. I found it impossible to comprehend that teachers who had spent years working with young people, had built relationships with them and are best placed to understand their strengths, weaknesses, potential and overall ability, would have their professional judgement disregarded to allow for an untried and untested computer algorithm to cast the final assertion on the results of AS and A levels.
The Member will recall her colleague who is sitting on the Back Bench, Catherine Kelly, saying, in relation to teachers:
"I believe that we need to be very careful around that. How will teachers ascertain grades when there is little to no evidence of continual assessment?"
That was at the Education Committee on 22 April.
I thank the Member for his comments.
The Minister and CCEA were all about protecting the system and disregarding the needs of the young people. If we trust teachers more, this process will level out and we will find the true ability of our young people, which is not always reflected in the pressure of testing. Over the last number of months, we have constantly heard about the new normal. Let us be adventurous and use this time to explore the new normal in education and put our children and young people first and foremost and not have an outdated exams system.
I could accept the argument made about the anomalies if this was an isolated incident. The fact is that drastic examples of downgrading were replicated right across schools in the North. That pointed to a flawed, unfit, unfair and unreliable system, and our students deserved far better. I sincerely hope that lessons will be learned from this by the Minister, his Department and CCEA. I welcome the fact that the Minister recognised the need to overhaul his approach. I also welcome his apology to the young people. However, Minister, everyone else was away ahead on this issue. Other parties had demonstrated a willingness to work together in order to reach a workable solution that worked for our young people and respected our teachers. The motion agreed by the Education Committee last week and today's motion are testament to that.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this whole episode is that many of us raised concerns with the Minister and CCEA. This could have been avoided if the Minister had not followed the Tories and waited for England to lead. The Minister needs to take a stark lesson from this: you are in a devolved stand-alone Assembly that has its own mandate and powers. Use that mandate and powers for the betterment of all young people here in the North.
As we head into the 2020-21 academic year, I am fearful that all the lessons of this year have not been heard and taken on board. As the mother of a daughter who is entering year 12 next week, I worry that her year and year 14 could be severely disenfranchised. <BR/>Those young people have lost four months' learning and teaching, right in the middle of a two-year course for GCSEs and A levels. I urge the Minister to look urgently at the curriculum for those courses and ensure that young people are not left in the same situation next year. The focus now needs to be on clear and concise guidance for principals, teachers, pupils and parents. The Minister needs to reassure us all that the mishandling of the exams fiasco will not follow him into restart. Let us not allow the chaos of this exams debacle to define the restart of our education system.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I welcome you back after the long break. I want to pass on my regards to the SDLP. It has had a hard time over the past year: it lost not only John Hume recently but John Dallat and Séamus Mallon, so there has been a great loss to the SDLP family.
I want to acknowledge the voices that have been mobilised over the past four or five days. There have been many, and they have been loud. Each of us, regardless of the party that we are in, will have been inundated by emails, text messages, Facebook messages and phone calls, at all hours of the day and night. The voices were those of students, parents, carers, teachers, other professionals and student advocate bodies, and they all agreed that something needed to be done because something just was not right. We absolutely are in unique times and unique circumstances, and there is no doubt that we needed a unique response to the problem.
The Minister's U-turn on the GCSE and A-level awards, with the decision to award students the best of their teacher-predicted or CCEA grades, is one that everybody here should be rightly grateful for. That will bring great comfort and give some hope to those students and their families. I do wish, however, that it had come sooner.
During the Committee's work on this, there was, I have to be honest, only a little bit of flag planting by some over the issue. I thought that we worked collegiately and that it was one of the best things that I have been involved with as an MLA. There was some flag planting, but not too much. I thank my Committee colleagues for how robustly we worked on that together. I thought that that was remarkably good, and it perhaps gives some hope to the people of Northern Ireland that, when we come together, we can achieve much.
Let us look at what happened last week and what those young people were faced with. When they got their results on Thursday, some received emails from universities rejecting their place, which must have doubled down on their pain. That was coupled with what already exists, and that is the anxiety related to getting exam results. For many of us, that was some time ago, but that is a real pressure for young people, and it is probably worse now than when any of us went to school. That is picked up in the high levels of mental ill-health in Northern Ireland. We know, from the information and data that we have, that adverse childhood experiences and trauma are what inform us now in how we are going to beat mental ill-health. As has already been picked out, 11,000 grades will need to be changed, so I charge CCEA with carrying on that work post-haste to make sure that universities and further education colleges are able to allocate places fairly.
In the next two minutes I will give a couple of examples. The first example, and I have heard it many times, is one that came to me. A young female student who lives in Lagan Valley was predicted four straight As in her A levels. She was an A-grade pupil; a high-achieving pupil. Instead, she got one A, two Bs and one C. We know that that will be fixed. The potential loss to her was a place at Queen's to study law. I believe that we can and should catch the tail of that, but there were some lost days.
This next example is more stark, so please listen to it. I have permission to share this, without giving the name. A student was awarded a U, an E and a D. His target grades were not As or Bs but Cs and Ds. The young man had a mother who was severely mentally ill and was assessed many years ago as not being capable of looking after her family. The young man's problems were compounded by the fact that his dad was violent and had a temper. On his fifth attempt to run away from home, this young man was successfully picked up within his own family and became a looked-after child. That bit is important: a looked-after child; one of our most vulnerable. I know that one of the Minister's priorities is to look at educational underachievement, and this, right here, is an example of that. This young man really wants to get his predicted grades of two Cs and a D. What compounded his problem was that, on her deathbed at the start of this year, he made a promise to the granny who took him in that he would go to university. That was his promise to her. He wants to go to university. He does not want to be a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher. He wants to be the best that he can be. That is what we want our young people to be: the best that they can be, regardless of what that is. We need to re-evaluate our values. We need to make sure that that young man gets the opportunity that he deserves and, indeed, that every student who has been caught in this gets their opportunity.
I know that mental health will get picked up, so I will just leave it there because I am sure that some of my colleagues will deal with that.
The light was not on. Thank you.
I thank the children and young people of Northern Ireland for the sacrifice and the contribution that they have made to limit the impact of COVID in our community and, indeed, to save lives. I welcome the Minister's change of position on the award of grades on their behalf. I am delighted for the pupils, parents and teachers who have worked for this outcome, and I welcome the Minister's apologies for the distress that they have experienced.
However, there are concerns. It is concerning that the Minister 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* to C grades reduced from 90% to 60%, 20 of 126 pupils did not gain a university place, one pupil who was rank-ordered by the school as second in the B band was awarded a D grade by CCEA and a pupil who was rank-ordered 21st in the B band by the school was awarded a B grade by CCEA. Those are startling inconsistencies.
It is also seriously concerning that a pattern is emerging of a Minister who is consistently following a Conservative Government rather than leading for the people of Northern Ireland. That Conservative Government have adopted a slow, inadequate and flawed response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I sat in the Assembly on Wednesday 25 March as Chair of the Education Committee calling on the Education Minister to set a date for the planned closure of schools only to be told, "No. Now is not the time to close schools". Boris Johnson announced a closure of schools that same afternoon, and the Minister of Education immediately followed suit. I sat in the same place last Friday and put to the Education Minister that the only fair option was for him to award all pupils with whichever was highest of their AS-level, teacher-assessed or CCEA-calculated grade for GCSE and A level. I note —.
Just to clarify that. The Member is referring specifically to the situation with the AS grade, and the grade will be the higher of the two. There are two reasons for that. The AS grade is based on 40% of the work whereas the other two grades represent the full two-year experience. However, we have also now reached a point at which everyone throughout the United Kingdom, where there was going to be complete competition, is now in exactly the same position. Indeed Wales, where reference was previously made to the AS grade, has now dropped that as an issue, and everybody is in the position of taking the higher of the two. I think that it would disadvantage our pupils if we were to muddy the waters by introducing that.
There is also a concerning pattern of failing to heed contributions of the Education Committee and, indeed, the education profession. The Assembly and the Education Committee consistently questioned the approach to this matter, particularly the key aspects of it that failed so many pupils so badly. In particular, those were the rank-ordering approach that I referred to and the past school performance.
The Minister was questioned about why the rescheduling of exams was dismissed and rank ordering was used at the Ad Hoc Committee at which he announced the cancellation of exams, on 16 April, and the Education Committee held a number of sessions on those matters. We were absolutely clear that grades must be awarded on the basis of individual ability, and, for Christopher Stalford, I will refer to some of that. The Education Committee wrote to CCEA on 3 June emphasising that fairness and transparency must be key to this approach and expressed considerable concern in respect of the statistical model that was to be used to inform the awarding of grades, which had yet to be fully developed or subjected to any testing, and concern that its characteristics and method of application had yet to be explained and communicated to schools, including how the CCEA model would link to similar models across the UK. The Committee indicated clearly that an examination and appeal process should allow for individual variation and that professional teacher assessment would be a reliable basis on which to proceed. Indeed, it also said that appeals should be based on the characteristics and application of the statistical model, something that the Minister introduced only last week. So, we responded robustly.
I hope that the Minister will engage with the Committee on the matter, because urgent clarifications are needed, particularly of the timescale for grade allocations to pupils, colleges and universities and, in particular, on how he will work with the Minister for the Economy to ensure that those institutions have all the support that they need to honour the offers that they have made to pupils across Northern Ireland. We cannot see this repeated next year, so we need urgent clarity on what the curriculum and assessment process will look like next year, including what contingency plan will be in place for post-primary admissions in 2021.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Like others, I welcome you back to the Chair.
In my opening remarks, I pay tribute to the pupils, students and teaching professionals of Northern Ireland. I want to recognise that, however you measure it, our education system is second to none across the world. It provides opportunities for progress. It provides opportunities for those with ambition and supports those who need support. That is characteristic of what the Minister has tried to do in his tenure in office.
I appreciate the Member giving way, because Mr Lyttle was so reluctant to. Does the Member recall Mr Lyttle saying — it is in Hansard:
"It is safe to say that we, along with students, teachers, schools and parents, welcomed the clarity provided by the Minister last week on the question of examinations"?
There it is on the record.
On that theme, last Friday's Committee meeting was telling in terms of its politics; not the issue of the meeting but the politics of the meeting. The Minister subjected himself to a grilling, and he is to be commended for his performance at that meeting. We had two members of CCEA sitting outside the door and were about to interview them when the Chair did not want to divide the Committee but wanted to take a vote before the Committee listened to what CCEA had to say.
Peter Weir's tenure in office has been characterised by his ability, his interest, his willingness and his giving of himself to attend Committee meetings. He has been unstinting in that. I have to say that I have often wondered why he has done it, considering what has happened at some of the Committee meetings. Minister Weir characterises the Assembly's ambitions for our education system. He has recognised — this has already been paid tribute to — that many children and young people do not get the opportunities that they deserve and has taken action on it. He also acknowledges that there are many young people who do well, and he wants to support them so that they do even better. Minister Weir has made no comment about the campaign across Northern Ireland or across the UK. All he did was take action to make sure that Northern Ireland students were not disadvantaged in the UK.
We all want the best education system, the best opportunities, the best qualifications and the best skill sets for our children, our pupils, our students; indeed, that has characterised Minister Weir's tenure. We want the best examination results, and we want students to be tested against the best. We want that because we know that Northern Ireland students do extremely well. They have done extremely well this year and have done so in the past. I have no doubt that they will do extremely well in future. Their abilities compare very favourably with any other set of pupils.
As I said, Minister Weir has attended the Committee unstintingly, but we need to move on to where we go next. I welcome two comments that were made, one of which was by Mr Alan Hutchinson, the principal, I believe, of Glastry College, in today's 'Belfast Telegraph' today. Commenting on Mr Weir, he said:
"I think it is only proper that recognition is given to the Minister for Education, Mr Peter Weir, for doing the right thing. I appreciate that he was under considerable pressure to change his position on the grading system employed by CCEA and, in such circumstances, change requires great courage."
That comment was followed by another educational professional, who tweeted:
"It's a sign of strength and leadership to be able to reverse such a decision and I acknowledge and admire that Minister and I am grateful. Integrity is about doing the right thing no matter how hard it is. This decision shows integrity and leadership."
There are those who have criticised the Minister in the debate. Ms Mullan, the Deputy Chair of the Education Committee called the situation a "debacle". She said that students were failed and deserved far better. Our students deserve the very best, but there are other people in society who also deserve the very best, and a judge made a decision on that yesterday.
At the heart of the past few days has been the future of a generation of young people unfortunate enough to be coming of age during a pandemic, a future that, it appears, the British Tory Government and the DUP were prepared to wantonly discard. I can understand a privately educated, privileged elite such as the British Cabinet having no regard for the hopes and aspirations of ordinary young people, but the DUP needs to open its eyes and start representing the people who vote for it.
Peter Weir waited until a British Minister in London gave way on the issue. Why? Why are children in the North of Ireland being held to ransom by decisions taken in England? Almost as soon as the results were known — first in Scotland and then in other jurisdictions — it was clear that something had gone very wrong. The education system is supposed to deliver equality of opportunity: last week, it delivered postcode discrimination.
Let us put on record what the British Government and the DUP were prepared to preside over: more than a third of results downgraded by algorithm; pupils studying in large schools located in disadvantaged areas most harshly treated; pupils from our black, Asian and minority ethnic communities likely to be more disadvantaged; and pupils with disabilities faring less favourably. In the end, it was political pressure, not conscience, that moved the British Government and the DUP. "Sorry" is not enough: the damage has already been done. University and college places have already been lost, and young lives have already been disrupted. A month that should have been filled with celebrations and preparation will for ever be remembered as an anxious and distressing time. A month that should have been filled with excitement for the future was replaced by uncertainty and confusion.
I call on DUP Ministers Peter Weir and Diane Dodds to work together to ensure that all of the young people who lost out when they were denied proper grades last week are helped to find a university or college place to meet their needs.
The British Government should play their part by removing the cap that they imposed on university places this year. We have already seen young people take to the streets to express their anger and demand their right to be treated fairly. Get them the places and the future that they deserve.
Mr Speaker, first, I welcome you back to your place. I declare an interest in this matter as I have a niece who received her A-level results last week.
It is important that all Members consider how it is that we came to this pass. We are in this position because we are in the middle of a global public health crisis. Little over five months ago, the Executive decided that schools should close. The decision was also taken to put vast swathes of our economy into deep freeze until the crisis passed. Young people affected by these decisions will be paying for them, through their taxes, for a very, very long time. It is therefore vital that they are in the best possible position to attract and secure the best possible jobs and establish the best possible careers for themselves going forward, because the better that our young people do, the better that all of society in Northern Ireland will do.
Nobody could have foreseen the circumstances that are confronting us today. COVID has impacted on almost every aspect of every person's life in this country, and our young people undertaking GCSE, A-level and AS-level examinations have been hit particularly hard. It is also worth putting on the record in the House the extremely difficult situation facing students in fourth form and lower sixth as they go into a new school year. They will have to overcome significant challenges brought about by a loss of so much classroom learning time. It is in that context that we meet today.
People should always remember that we are living in unprecedented times. Formal school examinations were not stopped for the duration of World War II. They were not stopped for the three-day week. They did not stop for the winter of discontent or for the miners' strike. That should give us a sense of the scale of the challenge that we are tasked with dealing with.
In order to allow people to progress in their educational careers, a model of awarding qualifications that did not involve sitting formal examinations was going to be necessary because of the decisions taken to combat COVID. That, I assume, is accepted by everyone. Had the Minister, for example, suggested reopening schools to allow for the sitting of exams, I assume that there would have been widespread opposition in the House to such an idea. I am happy to give way to any Member who wishes to contradict me, although I urge the Chair of the Education Committee, who has been here longer than I, to cease chuntering from a sedentary position. It is not very becoming.
No model would have been without its flaws, and any Member pretending that they had the answer all along is engaging in a fantasy. The model that was in place had significant drawbacks, as does this one — grade inflation being the most obvious. The Minister is right to respond to the concerns expressed, and I am pleased that no student from Northern Ireland will be placed at an unfair disadvantage in relation to their peers elsewhere on these islands.
I also welcome the Economy Minister's announcement in relation to securing additional university places, and I urge all colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive to get behind her and give her the support that she needs to secure the funding for those additional places.
These are unprecedented times. Problems with one system have been identified and a new system has been put in place. Concerns first raised on a Thursday were addressed by the Minister on the Monday. That is reasonable and proportionate, and no one should ever doubt the Minister's commitment to ensuring that every young person in Northern Ireland, whether at primary school, secondary school or going on to university, gets the best start in life.
Ms Kelly referred to people from a working-class background. I am from a working-class background. I was born in Annadale Flats and reared at the bottom of the Ravenhill Road. The best start in life that I had was in education at Wellington College Belfast. I am very proud of my roots. I was sent here to represent working-class communities, and I assure her that I would never want to preside over a situation in which such communities were treated unfairly or disadvantaged. By the actions that he has undertaken, the Minister has ensured that all students, regardless of their background, are not placed at an unfair —.
I absolutely do accept that, because people from the sort of background that I came from had parents who could not pay for tutors. My parents could not pay for tutors. They could not pay for supplements to their education beyond the classroom-learning experience that I had, so I absolutely accept that. That needs to be addressed because every child, taking my constituency as an example, whether they are born in the Markets or the Malone Road, should be given the most ample opportunity to make the best start in life. I know that the Minister is committed to that.
I have only 20 seconds left.
We are all trying to feel our way through the biggest national emergency that we have faced in a generation. We should be doing so with a view to securing the best outcomes for young people, not securing headlines on radio shows.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome you back to your position.
Over the past few months, we have used the words "unprecedented" and "extraordinary" an awful lot, and Mr Stalford has made that point by using those words in his speech several times. While, obviously, the pandemic and the crises in our health system and in our economy and society are unprecedented in modern times, we have had to try to deal with these things and the outworking of them as best as possible. However, for this particular scenario, in relation to the awarding of grades, there was a precedent from the week before in Scotland. Instead of being proactive and learning from the mistakes that were made elsewhere and taking an approach that was based on the well-being of our young people, the Minister stuck with a position that seems to have been much more about protecting the system. This should never have been about defending an algorithm; it should have been about the well-being of our young people and giving them clarity and confidence in their grades.
Instead, we have had almost a week of additional stress and anxiety for young people, their families and their teachers, and that will now be further compounded by additional delays and uncertainty around university admissions. Instead of taking a decision a week ago when it was clear from the Scottish example that we would face the same issues, the Minister dragged his feet and seems to have waited on the English Minister adopting a position before doing similar. Of course, it is not the first time in this crisis that a Minister has slavishly followed the lead of London rather than doing the right thing for citizens here.
The reality now unfolding is that there may be several hundred more students who, on the basis of this amended approach, obtained their conditional offers from universities. While that will definitely be a positive thing for those young people, our universities and colleges are unclear about what the implications will be for them. Universities normally have almost a week to prepare their admissions and are now in a position where they do not have the students' grades and are, of course, receiving calls from students and their parents enquiring about places. I hope that the new amended grades will be speedily communicated to the universities and the young people, and I hope that the Minister can perhaps clarify the timeline around that.
I thank the Member for giving way. A number of schools are already in a position where they can indicate to young people. Indeed, a number of schools have made representations and made themselves available to make that known to young people. Regarding universities, this morning, UCAS convened all the awarding bodies and, indeed, the regulators to ensure that all information goes to it. I do not believe that that process had concluded by the time that today's Assembly meeting had started. Legally, all information has to go to UCAS. I understand that the intention was to ensure that that happened within the next couple of days so that everybody would be dealt with, but CCEA and others have to directly give that to UCAS, which will then forward that on to all universities so that the position will be uniform for all students in the university system.
I thank the Minister for clarifying that, and, hopefully, there will be a statement on that later today to give some clarity to universities and to the young people. We all know that our universities are allocated maximum students numbers each year and that, in a normal year, if they go over that number, they are fined. So yesterday, understandably, they were asking questions about what this would mean for them this year. Would they be able to take all the students who obtained their conditional offer, and would they be funded for this? What about the impacts on courses that have quotas, such as medicine and nursing? What will the impact be on the intake for next year if those courses are filled up this year? Did the Education Minister consult Executive colleagues on all that, in particular the Economy Minister, about what this decision would mean and how they would deal with it and, more importantly, communicate it? What about the Health Minister? Did he talk to him about courses such as medicine, dentistry and nursing? What about teacher-training places? Have all those things being considered in taking this decision?
I thank the Member for giving way. She rightly referred to the Minister for the Economy and the Minister of Health having important roles to play as we move forward. Would it be right to expect a collegiate approach from the Executive, from a Sinn Féin perspective at least, in addressing these issues?
I am coming to that.
For every decision, obviously, there are consequences, but instead of planning and having the answers to these questions, we are now faced with further delay and distress. I very much welcome the fact that the Finance Minister has this morning said that he will work with Executive colleagues to identify the additional resources that may be necessary to deal with the outworkings of this decision.
Mr Speaker, you are very welcome back to the House.
There is no doubt that we have done our young people a great disservice. We must learn from our mistakes. If you see a train coming down the track, it is best to get out of the way. The First Minister of Scotland set the precedent, but we did not follow.
I wish to concentrate my comments on maximum student numbers. Northern Ireland has a unique educational disadvantage across the four UK nations: the MaSN cap. This cap on student numbers holds back our economy by depriving it of the skills that we need. It has been a noose around the neck of our economy for years. This situation not only damages our productivity and decision-making but adds momentum to the Northern Ireland diaspora, breaking up families as children leave home to study in Great Britain, typically never to return. As a mother, I have seen my daughters leave Northern Ireland to study, and, indeed, they are both away at the moment. That is fine. However, when students want to stay at home and are not able to do so, we are forcing them away because we do not have enough university places. That splits up families, and it is heartbreaking. A few days ago, an OECD report concluded that it is not providing the next generation of graduate talent that our economy needs for the future. Also, we are not doing enough for those students who do not go to university; they need high-quality apprenticeships and a future in well-paid, emotionally rewarding work.
Today, however, is about the ongoing failure around the MaSN cap, which has become a crisis.
I thank the Member for giving way briefly. I absolutely agree that maximum student numbers need to be adjusted in these circumstances. Does the Member acknowledge that abolishing the MaSN cap would have significant funding implications and that any assistance that is provided to third-level education must be based on additional resources and not increased student fees?
I agree that we need to restructure our education and skills provision in Northern Ireland because the current system is inadequate.
The farce around A-level grades has forced our two universities to breach the MaSN cap imposed by the Department for the Economy. Last week, they offered places that they are bound to honour to students with the required minimum grades. This week, however, they are also bound to honour previous conditional offers to students who, with revised grades, now meet those conditions. This mess is not of the universities' making, yet it potentially creates a very serious financial situation for them. It is not a one-year problem. The universities will be breaching the MaSN cap this year and perhaps for the next three or four years for some courses because of the length of undergraduate programmes.
Do we really expect the universities to pick up the financial cost of the A- level fiasco? Yesterday, the British media reported that the Education Secretary for England, Gavin Williamson, had promised that UK universities would be released from the student number cap to allow students with sufficient A-level grades to be accepted. That is, no doubt, a misreporting, because the British media does not understand the difference between the UK and Great Britain, but it allows us to consider an important point. This mess is not entirely of the making of Peter Weir, the Department of Education and CCEA; it is also the mess of the British Government. The answer is clear. We must lift the MaSN cap for Northern Ireland and allow students with sufficient grades to study at universities in Northern Ireland. We must not expect the two universities here to pick up the bill for that and, given the role of the UK Government, we expect the Education, Economy and Finance Ministers here to very robustly make the case to the UK Government that they should pick up the bill for that.
I have one final point. As a Foyle MLA, I urge Ulster University to allocate an additional MaSN to the Magee campus. It remains a scandal that Northern Ireland's second city does not have a full-sized university campus. The SDLP will not rest until that is achieved. That is a pledge that we make in memory of John Hume.
The Minister for the Economy and the Executive have an opportunity today, not just to deal with the latest result of what COVID has done to our society but to reset the future and provide a better future for our children's generation. Let us not allow that prize to slip from our grasp.
Mr Speaker, I also welcome you back. Having listened to the debate in the Chamber this afternoon, I feel that it is paramount that we move forward to try to mitigate any fallout that there has been from the issuing last Thursday of the so-called results using an unseen algorithm, an unseen algorithm that obviously had not been trialled previously.
Receiving results of any kind is particularly stressful, but that is even more the case when our future careers depend on those results. This year, our young people, along with their parents and teachers, have had a particularly stressful time since the abrupt ending of the school year and the worries that lockdown imposed on their education. They have now had to deal with another stressful situation. Last Thursday brought about nothing but disappointment for our young people, their parents and their hard-working teachers, particularly as the day advanced and they learned that the results that they were awarded had nothing to do with the work that the teachers had done in assessing their grades. No consideration was given to the long and tedious task that teachers had in putting together evidence to support their predicted grades for each pupil.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree with me that, given what has happened, it is vital that the Minister and CCEA produce for the public the algorithm that was used that overrode the judgement of teachers? In the interests of transparency, it is vital that that is the case. Does the Member agree?
Now, a U-turn has taken place and teacher-predicted grades have been accepted as an option for the final grade. There must be a concerted effort to ensure that our A-level students are not disadvantaged further, in any way. First, there must be an assurance that help will be available through our health service and our mental health agencies to support those who have really suffered as a result of the fiasco and who may continue to suffer. Secondly, those frustrated young people must be given the opportunity to accept their places on their original first choice of course, whether those are in further education colleges or universities, and be permitted to start immediately. Those students must not be asked to defer until next year. This situation is not of their making.
I thank the Member for giving way. I agree with you about the need for the Health Minister to provide support where it is required. Will you also agree that, as we move forward and young people take up places in universities, the Minister for the Economy, Diane Dodds, will also need support and that there should be a collegiate approach from the Executive to address the issues?
Yes, indeed. I agree that there must be a collegiate approach, and I will deal with that in a few moments. With the larger numbers now having the opportunity to take up a university place, funding must immediately be sourced by the Minister for the Economy and be put in place to resource the universities for not only next year but the next three to four years, which is the average length of a university course that many of those extra students will be allocated to.
I am aware of some universities that have particularly popular courses, such as medicine, that have already raised concerns about the lack of capacity, staffing, accommodation and facilities if numbers are increased, especially when they are also trying to ensure that staff and students are kept safe as they reopen and need to continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
While most of the debate today has been around A-level results, and rightly so, we must not forget about those still waiting to receive their BTEC grades. To date, there has been no clarity about how those students will be affected. With universities filling up, there is growing anxiety among those students. I appeal to you, Minister, to try and resolve this situation post-haste.
I thank the Member for giving way. In relation to BTEC grades, I understand that part of the problem there has been with awarding bodies, such Pearson and Cambridge. The regulations of boards that are outside Northern Ireland lie with the English regulators, similar to A levels that are awarded by bodies outside Northern Ireland. Obviously, we will make representations, but BTEC lies outside any actual direct control that I or the Economy Minister have. So, at best, we can act like others to try and push the issue, but we do not have control over it.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, agus fáilte ar ais. Welcome back, Mr Speaker, and I also welcome back other Members who have been isolating over the last number of months.
I am not going to rehearse all the events of the last week. Nor am I here to bash the Minister because I have been there, done that, worn the t-shirt and have a full head of grey hair as a result of it. I know the burden that the Minister carries, I know the burden that other Ministers carry, and I do not envy any of their roles at this time because they are carrying additional burdens as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. By and large, our Executive have responded well to that pandemic, so I am not here to criticise but I am here to challenge. It is the role of the Assembly and Committees to hold our Ministers and the Executive to account.
I want to start with one of the last points that the Minister made in relation to the English and Welsh awarding bodies, and this frustrated me when I was Minister as well. I am of the view that any examination board plying their wares here should be held to account by the Minister here and by the accreditation bodies here. It is ridiculous that we have organisations selling exams to our schools, but yet there is little and, in some cases, no accountability over them. This crisis has exposed that as a failing in the examinations system. I am of the view that we should have one examinations body that is accountable to our Minister, our Education Committee and our Assembly. That is something that we should look at moving forward.
Will the Member accept that there is a wide choice of subject areas, and if we are going to provide examinations for all the possible subject areas, it would be inordinately expensive to manage and unpractical?
Scotland seems to do very well at it. That brings me on to a comment from Mr Newton. We do not have a world-class education system. We have world-class educators. I think that our pupils have the potential to be world class, given half a chance in the classroom and in the home, but we do not have a world-class education system. That is not the fault of this Minister, the previous Minister or the Minister before that. Since the power-sharing institutions were established, we have been starting to see an education system develop here, and the challenges and support that the local Executive can put in place are moving us forward — incrementally and slowly at times, but we are moving forward.
I want to support your comments. Is it not always the case that we talk about the charges for and the cost of education rather than investment in education and the outworkings of that investment in education?
OK. Thank you for your comments.
I want to touch on how the Minister and CCEA put in place a mechanism, which, I accept, although quotes have been thrown back and forth, most people welcomed because it was seen as a solution to there being no exams. However, once that solution was seen to have failed, you had to move to an alternative, and that is what concerns me about the response of the Minister and CCEA. This matter could have been resolved on Friday. The Education Committee worked collectively on Friday — I accept that there was also some politicking outside the Committee — to bring forward a solution. That could have been adopted. The matter could have been resolved on Saturday, or on Sunday, when my party was engaging with officials from the Minister's party. There could have been an intensification of that engagement.
My concern is this: the Minister, or people close to the Minister, did not see that there was a problem until late on Sunday night. Then, on Monday morning, they acted in relation to GCSEs. At that stage, they should have realised that only one solution was left to them, which was to move in relation to A levels as well. The Minister has said that he did not want to move — I am not directly quoting him — because he did not want to disadvantage our students in comparison with students in England and Wales. However, by failing to move at that stage, did he not disadvantage our students because he did not give them an advantage? Had the Minister stepped forward and led, as our Education Minister and the Education Minister for our schools and for our pupils, he could have given our pupils an advantage, whereas many of our students are now fighting for places in Scottish, Welsh and English universities, and, indeed, in universities across the border, which are being filled by Scottish students, by Welsh students and, now, by English students as well. The Minister, by not giving our students an advantage, was actually disadvantaging them.
I want to move on to what has to happen next. Our Minister's copybook is blotted. His leadership has been questioned. In the days and weeks ahead, we need to see decisive leadership because our schools now face the bigger challenge of reopening. As a parent and as an elected representative, I want to ensure that we have a Minister who is leading from the front, a Minister who is giving confidence to me as a parent and as an elected representative, and to our school leaders and pupils, that those schools are reopening safely and that all measures that can be taken are being taken to ensure that they open full time and safely over the next weeks and months, because that is where parents' minds are at now. Yes, university is important, but, Minister, you have an opportunity to step forward and give decisive leadership on the reopening of schools. That is what is needed from you and your Department now.
Mr Speaker, it is good to see you back in your Chair. I know, from the number of meetings that we have had through the Business Office, that you have been working quite hard throughout this time.
I would like to take the opportunity, very quickly, to take a moment to say this to the SDLP: you lost a giant; we all lost a giant, and I have been thinking of you during those sad times, then and now.
On 12 August, which was the day before the A-level results came out, it was United Nations International Youth Day. The United Nations said that the day was:
"an opportunity to celebrate and mainstream young peoples’ voices, actions and initiatives, as well as their meaningful, universal and equitable engagement."
At this stage, I pay tribute to our young people across Northern Ireland. It has been an extremely stressful time for them and their parents, and I declare an interest as the mummy of an AS student who received grades last week.
I pay tribute to those young people. They were dignified in their response to what they were going through. I pay particular attention to the Secondary Students' Union of Northern Ireland, the various students' unions across the area and the teachers' unions because they have shown us that, with a singular voice, they had strength. I am glad, as Daniel McCrossan said, that those concerns were heard and finally taken on board by the Minister, but the job is not done yet.
Today, I will not talk about the good work of the Education Committee or any of the Members here; I will talk as a parent. The job is not done yet. There are many, many questions on which parents and students need to have clarification. One of the ways out of the debacle would be to answer those questions. For example, saying that CCEA will get the grades out soon is not good enough. We need to know the date on which they will be received. We need to know when UCAS will receive those grades so that we can finally find out what will happen to those young people who want to move forward into higher education. What communication has there been from Northern Ireland to UCAS to identify those students who will still lose out on a place because of the late changes to grades and perhaps some places have been filled?.
Today's amendment calls on the whole Executive, but we need to hear from the Minister for the Economy on what is happening with the money for university places. We cannot take away the cap on university places. We are potentially looking at an additional 1,000 students for Queen's University and probably the same number for Ulster University. That could equate to an additional £10 million per year for each year going forward for three or four years.
I thank the Member for giving way. Those of us who are Committee Chairs will have seen a letter from the Minister of Finance that suggests that in the region of £35 million may be available in-year. So, maybe, if we are looking for a collegiate, cross-Executive approach to deal with the problem of a cap on university places, all the political parties here today could commit to using that money.
Thank you, Mr Aiken. That is absolutely the collegiate approach that we need to pull Northern Ireland out of this. In-year funding of £35 million solves one year. Can we have that across all the years so that children such as my daughter and her cohort, who have completed AS levels, are not impacted next year when they might find that there are not enough places available? We know that Minister Dodds has been under extraordinary pressure because of the issues that we have with COVID, but she cannot delay on this. Unlike the excluded in Northern Ireland, we cannot see any delays on this.
I turn, then, to the Minister for Communities. Another issue has come forward from parents: are there enough student housing places available at our universities for those students? Will landlords see this as an opportunity to raise already exorbitant rent even further?
We need to think about the wider implications and what will happen going forward. If we are going to increase the number of university places, there are more things that we need to consider. What about student loans? Will the Student Loans Company be able to cope with the additional requests that will come through?
Mental health services are an issue. We have young people who have just completed their A2, who are not going back to school and who will not have that teacher support. Will the Minister of Education look to Youth Services to provide mental health support to young people to ensure that what they have gone through, and the awful COVID situation that we are all going through, are considered?
The BTEC results were mentioned by Rosemary Barton. Those students need their results. We are leaving those students behind, and I encourage the Minister of Education and the Minister for the Economy to get in touch with Pearson and the other bodies to find out what is happening.
I will not discuss the school restart programme because I know that the Education Committee will deal with that later today. The restart is another huge job that must be done.
In closing, however, I would like to say that, while all this is going on, special educational needs students are still being ignored and their supported employment programme might be closed down. Those young people have just left school, too, and I wish that the House and the public were as vexed about their future as we are about A-level students. Some of our students need assistance, some of our students need to know what their future is, and we cannot leave them behind.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Agus mo bhuíochas leat, agus is deas tú a athfheiceáil ar ais sa chathaoir. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I am glad to see you back in the Chair. I am delighted.
All of us have been inundated with the queries, questions, problems, issues and raw emotion of students and families generated by, as people are calling it, the A-level fiasco.
I have to compliment the Minister for realising that it was definitely going in the wrong direction, because I was contacted by schools facing an absolute avalanche of appeals. Frankly, all you would need to have thrown into the middle of that — the Minister will be well acquainted with this from his legal background — would be a judicial review or two. That would have left us, maybe at Christmas time, still sitting and nothing resolved.
Minister, thank you for realising the situation that we were in and making the decision that you made. It was not an easy decision for you, I have to say, Minister. I watched your performance at the Committee last week, but you did what you needed to do when you were faced with the reality of that situation.
Yesterday, I had a young mother in with me, who was very emotional. That was at about 2.00 pm and I said to her to wait until about 4.00 pm because an announcement was to be made in GB, more specifically in England, that may have had consequences for us.
We are at this point now, however it has created a lot of distress among young people. We have to emphasise the point that university for young people is not the be-all and end-all. Many young people will go on to have very successful careers. I know many who have never gone near university but who have gone on, adapted and moved to very successful non-academic careers. Many of them are in my constituency in the field of manufacturing and they are being absolutely creative with the skills they have been gifted.
However, the message that I am still receiving is that this could have been done much, much better. The school principals with whom I have been tic-tacking about this have been trying to manage this emotional and professional roller coaster. Some of the schools are deeply resentful. One principal wrote to me:
"This year CCEA requested centre-assessed grades and detailed guidance be provided, and how this was to be carried out. Staff took a minimum of two weeks to complete this exercise. There were several Zoom meetings and moderation meetings to reach the decisions. Then the provisional grades were sent to principals. Further deliberation took place before the grades were finalised and the data entered into the new system set up by CCEA. Each principal had to sign off on every subject. I keep asking myself in what other profession would the decision taken by the person who is most qualified to make it be totally disregarded?"
That was from one principal. Another principal referred to the little consideration that was given to teacher-predicted grades — I will not go over that again — no consideration being given to pupil performance and improvement, especially with pupils taking resits, and there always being a significant percentage difference between AS and A2s in that specific school. That factor does not seem to have been considered.
On a point of accuracy, in relation to resits, where they had been planned that is part of the formula which was taken into account for A levels where there was a resit of an AS. That is not simply those that took place as a resit, but for those that were planned, because there is a recognition that where there are resits, though it differs from subject to subject, generally speaking there will be some rise in the results as a result of a resit within each subject. That was part of the formula that was applied to A levels.
I thank the Minister for that.
Another point raised by the same principal was:
"English examination boards did not change any of our grades, and CCEA changed 65% of the grades. Why? The other aspect of this that we are moving into is does CCEA hold data on pupils in receipt of free school meals and pupil outcomes, so that an impact assessment can be carried out as to what demographic factors of candidates have been most impacted by the use of a flawed system, that is gender, free school meals and ethnic groups."
The other point raised was whether there is any differential in the algorithm or model devised by PwC for £100,000, between grammar and non-selective schools.
There is, of course, as I referred to, the impact on the mental well-being of already stressed pupils and their parents.
That is my understanding; I read that in the media somewhere. However, I suggest that those matters are best dealt with through an inquiry at the Committee, or possibly the Public Accounts Committee; it may well be best referenced there.
We are in the position now — I am sure that this has been repeated, so give me a wee bit of forbearance — where CCEA must get those results out as soon as is humanly possible.
There are special educational needs to be addressed. There is a requirement for schools to reopen, but there is also a need for additional university places to accommodate those who have been left out so far.
I, too, welcome you back, Mr Speaker, to chairing the proceedings in the Assembly, and I welcome Deputy Speaker Patsy McGlone back to the Chamber. I, in turn, will be freer to speak from this side of the Chamber where I was, perhaps, curtailed in the past.
I, too, support the motion as amended. The original motion reflected the community's concerns about the awards that were originally made by CCEA in a process that was approved by the Department and the Minister. It was, clearly, a flawed process.
Awaiting an A-level result is a stressful time at the best of times, but even more so when you have not sat an exam and there is the uncertainty of an algorithm that governs the final results. There was a huge responsibility to ensure that due diligence was carried out, but it appears that that was not the case. It was governed more by restricting increases to 2%. As a result, many students were downgraded who, clearly, should not have been. That has been incredibly stressful for the students and their families. Many thought that their future careers were lost. I am pleased that there was a dramatic U-turn yesterday and that sense was seen.
Why do I say that there were flaws? I will give examples of some of the students who have been reported to me. One history student got a C at AS level. In their mock A level, they got a B. They were predicted a B, but they were awarded an E. They had been improving, but the result was significantly worse. Another student was predicted a B and a C in double-award science, but they got a D and an E. Perhaps the most surprising one that I have come across is a student who studied government and politics. All along, they reached A-grade attainment levels; they got an A in their mock, and their teacher predicted an A. They were awarded a C. Anyone who looked at the individual assessments would have questioned what was going on. It was not right.
Another student who got an A at their GCSE examination and was being predicted a B was awarded a D. There is clear evidence that there were obvious flaws that should have been spotted. There was, potentially, an appeals mechanism, but why did all those students have to go through that trauma when there were obvious flaws in the system? There was a fault at the core of what was happening.
I thank the Member for giving way. The Member across the Chamber stated that the Minister acted on Thursday, once he was aware of the issue. In fact, CCEA contacted principals on Wednesday; it knew about the flaws. Scotland should have been a red alert. Does the Member agree that the Minister waited too long to rectify the situation?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I agree entirely; it should have been apparent even before the community were up in arms about the results that were happening, which caused undue stress to students and their parents. It appears that the algorithm was governing it. I have a tip for the Education Committee: use the 1998 Act to get the algorithm. You are entitled to it.
It is important that there is transparency about what went on. It appears that some students were assessed on previous school groups that may not have reached the same level of attainment. It is also a fact that they were ranked in their group, irrespective of where the group level was. They were being marked down; the mark did not reflect their personal situation and track record.
Turning to the amendment, it is clear that we now need to move on. I am pleased that the Minister did his U-turn, but the job is not finished yet. Students are now being given their new awards, and I am pleased, but all students must get those final predicted awards from their teachers as soon as possible. When will that be? It is not over then. The problem then moves on to our higher education facilities. Who are they going to accept? Sadly, some conditional offers have been withdrawn. What will happen to those students? There needs to be clarity. Will the universities be able to accept and fulfil those original awards? It will be totally unfair if students are awarded the grades that they think will get them into university for their desired course but do not then get in. It is essential that the Department of Education, the Department for the Economy, the Executive and our universities work closely together to give clarification, as quickly as possible, so that each of these students can learn and get to the course that they wish to, as soon as possible, and move on in their careers.
We must learn from this and ensure that it does not happen again. I hope that the Minister is already putting processes in place to ensure that students will have examinations next year and that we will not be relying on such a flawed system that has caused so much controversy. I would have thought that, in hindsight — hindsight is a wonderful thing — when schools were empty during the pandemic, it would have been possible to have had examinations and, undoubtedly, that would have been better than a prediction.
I welcome the fact that the position has changed and I ask the Minister, the Executive and the universities to move forward, as quickly as possible, to finalise what our students are going to be doing.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Like everyone else, I welcome you back to your place. It is good to see you back.
Like other Members, from my party and across the House, I support the motion and the amendment. Obviously, we proposed and have worked with other parties to develop them so I will support them.
I congratulate the Minister on making this decision. I understand that, in politics, it can sometimes be difficult to change your position under extreme pressure, so I welcome that he had the maturity to do that. It worries me that it took the Minister so long to do that and that his decision came only after the increasingly chaotic Secretary of State for Education in England, Gavin Williamson, made a similar decision. As others have said, it simply cannot be the case that public policy outcomes for our young people, or anyone else in Northern Ireland, are dictated by what the Conservative Government in London do first.
I will try to be brief in my remarks. The Minister has said over the last few days, and several DUP MLAs have repeated today, that one of the primary motivations for this decision was to ensure similar treatment to students in other parts of the UK. Yes, it is important to ensure that our young people are not treated worse than those against whom they are competing for university places. I speak as someone who went to university in Scotland. I repeat, as others have, that if the Minister thinks that the only good reason for performing this U-turn is to give us consistency with England, Scotland and Wales, with the greatest of respect — I mean respect, given the enormous pressure he has been under for the past few days — he has not understood the intensity of feeling on the issue. This was not just about being treated the same as English, Welsh and Scottish students; it was about addressing a very profound sense of injustice felt by individual students at being downgraded, not based on work that they had done, but on an algorism that they had never seen. Indeed, most of us had never seen.
I understand, and it is worth acknowledging again, that there was never going to be an ideal or easy outcome when schools were closed and exams cancelled, but the truth is that absolute statistical consistency and a focus on stopping any grade inflation — as it is called — was the wrong approach in such an anomalous and unique year. Christopher Stalford, who has now left the Chamber, was right in saying that we have asked a huge amount from our young people during the COVID-19 crisis, particularly those who were going through exams. That is why it was all the more important that we did our absolute best for them through the examination process.
I acknowledge that the Minister will have made his decision based on what he believed to be best for the system and the students. However, given that they faced the extraordinary injustice of being denied schooling — the first generation since the introduction of universal second-level education to be denied schooling en masse — it was all the more important that we did the absolute best for them. The truth was that a sense of random injustice was created by the COVID-19 crisis, which has limited life for all of us. It is an extraordinary imposition on life and has created extraordinary disruption, and they have felt that more than any. That is why it was, in a sense, even worse to create the random injustice of an algorithm rather than judging them on work that they had done and the judgement of their teachers.
I am glad that various parties in the Assembly came together, inspired by and as demanded by young people and their families. As I said, this is not a perfect solution, in part because there are no perfect solutions. There is no good outcome in these circumstances. That said, lots of young people and their families will be relieved and will have been relieved over the last 12 or 24 hours to be in a better position. However, this throws up significant short-term challenges that I know that the Minister will be working on. Those have been covered by other Members and include ensuring that we get the updated grades — the predicted grades — to students as quickly as possible and that the transition process to university works as quickly as possible. There are lots of other challenges that the Education Committee and the Economy Committee will have to examine.
This also throws up stark, long-term lessons about our education system and how it fails our young people. Robin Newton, the former Speaker, said earlier that we have one of the best education systems in the world. To put it bluntly, that is not true. Some of the inequalities thrown up by this process have underlined inequalities that existed in the past. The Minister has commissioned a group to look at educational inequalities, and I welcome that. However, if this process is to do anything, let us make it look hard at what we want to get out of our education system, from 11 through to university, including the cap on student numbers —
— because that leads to unfortunate outcomes and dampens our productivity.
In welcoming today's motion, I say that we have short and long-term challenges to focus on.
I join my party members in welcoming you back. I also say to the SDLP that John Hume was, indeed, a colossus on the Northern Ireland and global political stage. His advice and guidance will be very much missed by our party as well.
Many Members have talked today about the implications of what has happened with the A-level debacle and fiasco. I do not wish to join in an attack on and criticism of the Education Minister. It is vital that we get to the bottom of what happened. The first thing, which our learned friend from South Belfast talked about, is the importance of the need to recognise that we are in the midst of a COVID pandemic. We are not in normal times. However, despite the fact that we are not in normal times, we have known all along that the GCSE, AS and A-level results were going to come out. We have known for many months that the situation was going to occur. Indeed, as we have heard, we probably spent a considerable amount of money with PwC in creating an algorithm to look at these problems. This did not happen over just one or two days. This happened over a considerable time.
We are in a situation here in which the Assembly is being asked to look at a system that, until the changes happened on Monday, meant that our young people would have been significantly disadvantaged, not just for now or for the coming year but for the rest of their life. I am at the tender age at which I am still asked, if I put my name in for a board or a board position, what my A-level and GCSE results were. I did not do AS levels. That is an example of the implications of the problems that we have had in Northern Ireland. There are substantial questions of leadership here that must be answered. Our party will join in the process of asking to make sure that there is a full and thorough investigation of this.
Some fundamental questions need to be asked, and I want the Minister to answer them. We know that our universities ran a model in July to look at the likely number of students that they would have. It used A levels, AS grades and teachers' predictions. It was fundamentally different from the model that CCEA was using. Why were the alarm bells not ringing at that stage, Minister? Why were your special advisers and members of your Department not saying that there was something fundamentally flawed and wrong?
This did not come out of the blue, given what happened in Scotland, where the Education Minister there, even though they had been given advice two weeks beforehand that it would be a substantial problem, realised that that was the case and did a U-turn. The fact that we had to wait so long for a U-turn to occur has meant that there are students right now who do not even know whether they will go to university this year. Some had already received a conditional offer but cannot go now. Students who had received a conditional offer and were about to go to university do not know whether that will be overturned or potentially overturned by some form of judicial process. This has been a fundamental failure. I know that we do not seem to hold anybody accountable or responsible for anything in Northern Ireland, but, on this occasion, somebody must be held accountable and responsible for what has happened to our students, to our parents and to our teachers.
In my last minute, I would like to talk about teachers. Teachers were asked, because of COVID and all the difficulties that there were, to use their best professional judgement. They were asked to look at what grades their students were likely to get in their AS levels and A levels. They were told that they had to be especially rigorous and to look at everything in significant detail. They had to make sure that everything that they did in their process was rigorous. They were also asked to look at a merit order of where pupils sat in their various subjects. When that went to the algorithm to be run through the computer, the universities used what the teachers said, based on their best professional judgement, to get the qualifications, but CCEA used the merit ranking system. We do not know any more details about that because, a bit like the emails about PPE that have mysteriously never arrived, it seems to be some form of secret.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome you back. I share in offering my condolences to the wider SDLP family.
All this could have been avoided today. Yesterday's decision is a welcome result for the voices of teachers, parents, pupils and students, and credit to them for demanding an equitable resolution. Recent events have brought incredible distress. There will not be one MLA here who has not been contacted by someone asking for help. Every summer, we deal with students who are not treated fairly by the system, so this is not a new issue. We have the worst levels of students leaving education with no qualifications.
The grades, the algorithms and the workings out that have been discussed for the last couple of days and here today are actually children and young people's lives. Let us take a moment and think about the educational journey that they could have been on. Hopefully, our child gets a nursery place, with good-quality, funded childcare. However, without proper early years provision or a childcare strategy, maybe our young person's start in life is not as good as it needs to be. Then, our child attends school, at age 4, separately; the earliest in Europe. Some will be able to get into their first preference primary school; others will not. Maybe our young person has recognised special educational needs, or maybe they will spend years trying to get statemented. They will receive a uniform and a free school meals payment. Maybe the school is underfunded and under-resourced.
Then on to big school. Maybe our young person did not do the transfer test or did not do well enough in it to get into the school that their friends go to. Maybe they get a place in their third or fourth preference school or whatever place they can get because all the others were oversubscribed. Maybe they face other barriers. Maybe they do not feel like they fit in and are subject to bullying, like nearly half of students in Northern Ireland. Maybe they have freckles, or maybe, like me, they are not as tall as their peers. Maybe they are LGBTQ. Maybe they have a disability. Maybe they do not have English as their first language. Maybe the young person is a carer, too, has additional at-home responsibilities or is in care themselves. Maybe they are one of the 25% of children who are growing up in poverty in Northern Ireland, from one of 103,000 families struggling to make ends meet, impacted by austerity and by the horrific so-called reform of social security. Maybe the young person does not get a nutritious meal at the end of the day. Maybe they are one of the 15,000 children who were fed using an emergency food package last year alone. Maybe they have additional needs. Maybe there is abuse in the home. Maybe there is drug or alcohol addiction. Perhaps our young person is one of the 35,000 who went to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services for mental health support in 2018. Perhaps they are one of the one in 10 in the classroom who has a diagnosable mental health illness.
Despite all the barriers that our young person could have faced, they managed to get to the examination stage this year, working hard to deal with COVID, lockdown and adapting to the new normal — that is if they have the technology in place to do so or the support networks at home.
On top of everything else that we as a society demand from our children and young people and regardless of COVID, an unjust system is imposed that standardises them and bases their academic performance in part on the basis of other people, some of whom they have never met, and not on the individual's work. Some defended a system that most of us did not understand, let alone got sight of, rather than defending our children and young people. We talk much about aces, supporting our young people and educational underachievement, but the current approach is embedding division and disadvantage further, ensuring that the divide continues. Our job as public servants is to serve the next generation, not to destroy it, and I remind our young people that exam results do not make you as a person. They are not the whole picture, and they will not wholly determine everything that you do in your life. There are certainly no exam qualifications needed to be in this Chamber.
Last year, 158 young people left school with no GCSEs, and 131 left with no formal qualification of any kind. How many will there be this year? How many will there be next year? Those who are entitled to free school meal payments are twice as likely to be recorded as unemployed after they leave school. If the Minister's prime concern remains that young people in Northern Ireland are not disadvantaged, why were we dragged through this mess, and what are we going to do? What are the Executive's plans to address the inequalities that are evident in the figures for our school-leavers? Will there be a review of what happened this year? Will an impact assessment be published? Will there be an inquiry? What about next year? What about the AS levels? What about university places and clearing?
This is not just about grades; it is about a totally unfair system and the need for the long-term transformation from assessment and qualifications that must happen and an Executive who actually do something practical about it.
It has been interesting for me to observe the internecine blame game between the Executive parties. However, make no mistake about it: this is a shambles made in Stormont. It is not the first, and, I fear, it will not be the last. I welcome the fact that the Minister eventually came to the point of U-turn. I remain critical, however, of the blindness and deafness of the Department and the Minister to the problem for so long.
What everyone else could see on Thursday the Minister denied. What everyone else could see on Friday the Minister denied. Eventually, on Monday morning, he came to the realisation that he was on untenable ground, which was also, of course, shrinking ground, and that he had to make the U-turn on GCSEs. Even in making that U-turn, he compounded the insult to teachers in our community. He accepted that teacher grades for GCSE were the appropriate benchmark and decider but persisted in saying, "Not so" about the same teachers' grades when it came to A levels. Then, belatedly, on Monday, when the ground was removed totally from below him, he came to accept that as well. It was that deafness and blindness to the problem that was the greatest weakness that the Minister showed in all of this. I commend the very many pupils, parents and teachers who campaigned to great effect and eventually secured what was rightfully theirs from the beginning. I commend them for that and for the vigour and determination that they showed.
Now, of course, we are at the halfway point of the crisis. We are at the point where university places that had been dangled before students were, because of the perverse CCEA results, snapped away from them. The question now is whether they can be returned to them. Of course, it is vital that those who have now got the rightful grades that they were first denied also get the university places that, to this point, they have been denied. That will take extra funding. Yes, Sinn Féin, which ridicules following the GB examples, will, of course, be the first party with its hand out for the funding to enable that to happen, because I suspect that it will be on the back of Barnett consequentials that extra funding will be provided. That will not be for just this year — these are three- and four-year courses — but for future years. That must be done if some degree of equity and fairness for our students is to be salvaged from this.
It is not just a matter of leaving it there. How did we get here? Is CCEA fit for purpose? That question needs to be asked, because it was not just the Minister who defended CCEA: the chief executive of CCEA could not have been more bullish in his defence of this indefensible system.
Does the Member agree that there are serious questions to be raised about the secrecy that surrounds the CCEA process, particularly on this occasion, which has shone a bright light on how it functions?
Thank you. I trust that the Education Committee will take up the cudgels on the issue and conduct an investigation of how we got here, whether CCEA is fit for purpose and what lessons are to be learned. It is not a matter that can be let rest. The Minister was effusive in his support for CCEA. Did the Minister have complete sight of the algorithm that has failed — if he did, it compounds his folly — or did he leave it to CCEA and, in leaving it to CCEA, was he let down? Those are questions that we need answers to. There is blame in various quarters, and I certainly do not exempt CCEA. It is not the first time that CCEA has messed up on exams. It was on a far lesser scale in the past, but this is not the first time. A long, hard, vigorous look needs to be taken at CCEA to see exactly where things went wrong.
Fundamentally, in all of this, we should think about the students and the pupils and the unnecessary distress that they were put through last weekend. It should have been rectified before Thursday. It should, at least, have been rectified on Thursday. Instead, students were hung out to worry —
Mr Speaker, I welcome you back and wish you good health in the period ahead.
I thank the Members for bringing the motion to the House. Many have acknowledged the recent U-turn on A level and GCSE results as a good decision. We in People Before Profit recognise it for what it is: a forced decision. Of course, a "Well done" is in order for forcing the U-turn but not for the Minister. I say, "Well done" to the pupils who gathered in protest, not just here but across the water. I say, "Well done" to the parents and teachers who used every platform available to them to rebuke the disastrous situation that we saw last week and to stand up for young people and their futures and to organisations such as the National Union of Students - Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI), the Secondary Students' Union and many others.
As has been alluded to already, this situation has exposed many deeper problems in our education system, whether it is the division of children on the basis of academic ability or the state's expectation that children in impoverished areas should underperform compared with their counterparts in more affluent areas. Those issues and others, such as the outdated division of pupils on the basis of their religion, remain. However, I am encouraged that those in the education system are up for the fight for a better system with proper investment, even if those in charge of the system are not.
I am sure that many of the people who are rooted in our education system recognise that the COVID crisis has had an incredibly challenging impact on the sector and that navigating the crisis was never going to be easy. I am sure that many of those people, including the pupils, would have understood if the response to the situation had been a humbled Minister who recognised the gravity of the error that was made and moved swiftly to rectify it. They did not deserve a doubled-down response, but that is exactly what they got. I was appalled, as, I know, parents, pupils and teachers were, to hear the Minister say that, if teachers' predictions were used alone without standardisation, the results would have no credibility. What disdain for our teachers and teaching staff.
That level of arrogance has been thematic in the approach to schools during the crisis. Initially, the Assembly refused to shut schools down to protect communities, forcing principals and teachers to act. Then, it totally disregarded the planning and experience that were put into designing the phased return in the new school term to minimise the spread of the virus by commanding the full opening of schools with little consultation. Now, this latest example has undermined the intensive work put in by teachers to guarantee to the best of their ability that their pupils would get the grades that they deserved by deeming their efforts to have no credibility. It is no wonder that there is a lack of trust in the intentions or ability of the Minister among the many teachers who have spoken out publicly. I, too, am unconvinced that the arrogance that was displayed during the crisis befits an Education Minister. The unwillingness to listen to or consult properly those in the system who best understand the needs of pupils is inappropriate for the person responsible for making decisions about their future.
I tried to table an amendment today calling on the Minister to resign after what, I believe, was a series of disastrous decisions during this crisis, most of which were a result of blindly following the path of Boris Johnson's Government rather than creating a response that was based on the needs of people here. This most recent disastrous decision should be the final nail in the ministerial coffin. It is time for a new chapter in our education system that recognises the problems and mistakes of the past, seeks to invest properly in its future and that of all our young people and gives primacy to the needs and experience of those who are rooted in the education system. I ask other MLAs to join me in kick-starting that new chapter today by calling on the person responsible for the disastrous handling of this crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic to have the good grace to step aside. Unfortunately, I have not been allowed to debate that today, but I make the same call and hope that others will join me in calling for the Minister's resignation today. It is not just me saying it: I want the House to know that a school principal has been in touch and has said the following about the Minister:
"His disgraceful handling of this whole crisis has caused school leaders more stress than the actual health crisis itself. His arrogance, flippancy and clear disdain for the education workforce has left us feeling unsupported and at constant loggerheads with a man who was elected to give us support and guidance. Peter Weir is not worthy of his brief and school principals do not trust him with the safety and well-being of our pupils and staff. He needs to go."
Indeed, Minister: do the right thing and step aside.
Before we get into the meat of the debate, Mr Speaker, I welcome you back from your isolation. I also pass on to the SDLP my condolences in relation to the passing of John Hume. I appreciate that there will be an opportunity at a later date for that to be dealt with in a much longer and more appropriate manner, but I felt that it was important to put that on record.
It has been useful to know that, largely speaking, given the advice that the Speaker gave at the beginning of the debate that many young people would be watching the Assembly, perhaps for the first time, the tone of the debate has been calm and sensible on what is, potentially, a very emotive issue. There may be some exceptions to that tone, but, broadly speaking, that has been the case across the Chamber. That is important. We will talk about systems, numbers and statistics, but I think that all of us acknowledge that, behind anything that we try to do, there are individuals. In particular, we are dealing with young people and their futures, and that has been foremost in my mind. Irrespective of whether different people here have disagreements about what I have done or whether they have taken a different point of view, I think that that is the case for the vast majority of people in the Chamber and beyond. I welcome the opportunity to deal with the issue and to debate it today and to look at the decisions that have been made.
Let me say at the outset that the COVID pandemic has inflicted much suffering and hardship on our society, and many of our young people have had to face difficulties across different aspects of their lives. I understand those anxieties, and I can see that, for some, the A-level results process has been very upsetting.
We need to put this in the context of the results, even prior to the changes that were made, and it is important to put a few facts on the table. It is important to note that, when the A-level and AS-level results were announced last week, they were up from 2019. There was a rise of 1·6% in those achieving A* to C in A levels and, similarly, a rise of 2·2% in those achieving A to C in AS levels. Members have talked about the long tail of underachievement: in A levels — there was a similar drop in AS levels — the percentage of students who were awarded a U grade has gone down, even before the adjustments that will take place as a result of yesterday's announcement, from 1·7% to 0·9%. Fewer than 1% of people got a U grade.
There has been mention of the impact from a socio-economic point of view. While data on the particular impact on individuals who receive free school meals is not directly held, we saw last week, even on the basis of those results — there will be changes as a result of yesterday's announcement — that, in A levels, non-selective schools performed, relatively speaking, better than the grammar schools in terms of closure of the gap. Similarly, there was a very dramatic increase in the AS-level results, where the selective schools improved by 1·7% and, in the non-selective schools, there was an improvement of 7·3%. The gap closed from about 17% to about 12%. It is important that, while we deal with the difficulties that have arisen in this year's examinations, we do not downplay or diminish the anguish of young people, but it is also important that we acknowledge the successes for our young people, where they have happened, and pay tribute to the work that they have done.
In March, we faced unprecedented challenges as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. I know that the word "unprecedented" has become a cliché, but being a cliché does not make it any less true. Among many other decisions, the Executive decided that it was necessary to close our schools for an unspecified period. There are some who accuse me of simply following what is done at Westminster in terms of the schools. Let me make it very clear: when we were keeping schools open, when the decision was taken to close, when advice was given on partial reopening in June and when the Executive passed that further advice in August, the advice was, on every occasion, in line with what the Public Health Agency said and in line with the position of the Chief Medical Officer. If we are to decide things on health grounds, we have to go to those experts.
With schools closed, it was not possible to continue with the summer examination series, and therefore it was vital that consideration was given to how best to provide our learners with certainty about the way forward as soon as practically possible. There was the possibility of holding off until closer to exam time to take a decision, but that would have created uncertainty. The worst possible scenario would have been to start examinations and, in the middle of those examinations, have to take a completely different route. That meant that, in a very short window, we had to develop alternative means of awarding qualifications that would serve the long-term interests of our young people and ensure that they were able to progress this year into further or higher education or employment. We set out to provide a system that was fair and credible, and, as I will come to later, any system that we could have put in place would have had problems with fairness. Indeed, any action that could be taken in any direction to be fair to one group of individuals in the system may well ease the particular problems that that group faces but may have a corresponding and correlating action that makes it less fair for others, so, as much as possible, it was based on well-established examination processes, including standardisation to maintain standards over time.
It was also the case that the cohort from 2020, while facing very different situations, has to stand in a position that enables comparisons to be made with other years and also with future years, which will face some level of disruption. COVID meant that there was no established process for how to achieve this, so all processes had to developed at a pace.
I appreciate the Minister giving way. At the conclusion of this debate, Mr McNulty will rise to address the House. I think that it is worth putting on the record what he had to say about the model. Mr McNulty said:
"The words that you used ... were "unique" and "unprecedented". I think that is certainly true. We are in completely uncharted waters. It is a bold model that you have put forward, and the way you have managed to devise it in such a short time deserves major credit".
I am sure that Mr McNulty will probably be working that statement into his concluding remarks.
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 views of education stakeholders and experts. Those included head teachers, the Education and Training Inspectorate and the teaching unions. Everyone recognised that there was no perfect solution, but the arrangements were the best available given the circumstances. I wanted young people to have a solution that gave them an outcome to move to next stage of their lives in September but which also protected the integrity of our qualification system and past and future cohorts.
This is not simply an abstract concept. Northern Ireland is a small region. If our qualifications are not seen as having any level of integrity, given our scale, that would put our students in a particularly difficult situation. The standardisation process at A level differed from England in that pupils' prior achievements at AS level provided the central focus of the standardisation process. It is important to point out that, in the majority of cases at A level, 58%, and 62%, I think, at AS level have ended up being the grades that students were issued with last week. Indeed, in 96·6% of cases, the students received either the same grade or there was one grade of a difference. Understandably, we have seen a focus on the roughly 3% where there has been a major divergence.
Our examination system is important not just to young people's future but to the future of the economy, so employers need to have confidence in those qualifications when recruiting staff. Therefore, there is a responsibility to ensure that the qualifications awarded this year are recognised as robust, reliable and as an accurate reflection of the abilities of our young people. That was why standardisation was part of the awarding arrangements developed.
Moderation and standardisation are important features of the qualifications awards process every year. Moderation and standardisation are not new processes; they are annual processes that are widespread across all countries where examinations take place. That has happened in Northern Ireland and elsewhere for many, many years, so the concept that this has been simply grafted on this year would be inaccurate. They help to ensure that standards are maintained over time and that outcomes are fair and comparable across jurisdictions. In the UK, they have operated across the three jurisdictions that share GCSE, AS and A-level brands. Scotland has always adopted a different examination system, and, for instance, does not offer A levels. Importantly, standardisation ensures that qualifications awarded in Northern Ireland are recognised as comparable to the qualifications awarded elsewhere, and it is also the case that, when development of the processes was happening, all of the qualification bodies came to a very similar position on how awards were made.
Mention has been made specifically of the algorithm, and I think that one of the problems that has arisen is that, when an algorithm is applied, particularly as part of a standardisation process, where it tends to fall down is when it is applied to very small groups. In England, they tried to artificially rectify that problem, with the end result that action was taken to apply standardisation to small groups, and the impact of that was to unfairly favour independent schools. In England, one of the criticisms that has been made is that the levels of improvement in results have been much greater in the public school or independent school system than across comprehensive schools. We have to be careful because, when interventions take place, they can sometimes create circumstances that lead to undesirable results.
The issue may be dealt with in my next few remarks.
The proposer of the motion and other Members referred to the algorithm being published. On Friday past, I committed to doing that, as the Member acknowledges, and I gave instructions to CCEA. I can confirm that the algorithm has now been published on the CCEA website. Anyone is free to download, print out or examine it. I am sure that not only members of the Education Committee but others will want to do that.
Rank order, which was provided by teachers, was used in this system. If the argument is that we see teachers' predictions as being the critical element, we cannot, on the one hand, say that we regard those as being completely watertight, but, on the other hand, rubbish rank orders, which have come from the same teachers.
The aim throughout has been to try to create something that preserves not only the integrity of the exams but the greatest fairness. The problem is that any system being adopted has flaws and drawbacks. In the application of this process, we have seen that, on a broader system-wide basis, it probably produced the overall results that were anticipated and created an overall position for Northern Ireland. Where it clearly fell down on some occasions was with individual schools, with individual cohorts and particularly with individuals themselves. That was unacceptable. Indeed, it was a similar position in other jurisdictions, and different approaches were taken. In Northern Ireland, my initial approach was to ensure that we had a widened appeals process. The appeals process is normally conducted on procedural grounds, but it was directed so that any individual could show their work. If they had a certain level of prior attainment and showed evidence of that, an appeal could be taken. That would have allowed every individual to be treated on merit rather than there being a blanket solution.
There was some over-hyping in England about the "triple lock", where the only evidence that was offered was mock results. We went much wider than that. While it had been indicated that a mock result would simply overturn a result, when the fine detail was published, Ofqual had to withdraw it. As elsewhere, it was simply one aspect of evidence that may or may not have led to a change. We put forward an opportunity for everyone to do that.
Members mentioned the number of appeals. I appreciate that, given the circumstances, while appeals continue, there will not be the same need for appeals. I will give Members some figures. Before any decision was finalised yesterday, out of about 24,000 CCEA A-level awards, 948 had been appealed, which is a little under 4% of the overall total. That has to be put in context. While a process has now been adopted for GCSEs, A levels and AS levels — I am not in any way attacking anybody — that system also has flaws. If you do not have standardisation, there is grade inflation, and it has been shown that, as a minimum, the numbers of A* to C at A level will go up by more than 10% in a single year. At AS level, I think that the figure is 17%. I think that the figures will be lower at GCSE level, but obviously those results are not yet out so I am not at liberty to say. It will undoubtedly be the case that, while very good professional judgements have been made, if you do not have standardisation, you cannot guarantee that one pupil in one school will be treated exactly the same as a pupil in another school.
That is simply human nature. It would be the same if anybody were applying professional judgement in any situation: some people will be more strict and others will be more lenient and you do not have that level of fairness. I also appreciate Mr O'Dowd's position about bodies outside Northern Ireland. I disagree with him, but that might well be a debate for another day.
One of the factors that was also of particular relevance to A levels and AS levels and in providing that level of equality is that around 97% or 98% of GCSEs are set by CCEA and we have, with a very small exception, a largelyinternal market in Northern Ireland. Around one in five A-level and AS-level qualifications are given by boards that are mainly English; a small number are Welsh. If changes were to be made and Northern Ireland was to go entirely in a solo direction, I would have had the power to make a change that could have affected the vast majority, 80%, including those within the 80% who had maybe not got the grades that they had deserved, but that would have meant that there was no equality between them and the 20% that lay outside my hands. That also had to be borne in mind.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Setting aside the broader debate of whether there should be one or multiple examinations boards, is the Minister not concerned that he, as the Minister, has no authority over those who are plying their wares to our schools in this jurisdiction?
It is about a legal position. I am sure that we will come back to the wider debate on another day, but it is also the case that there is an inextricable link. I appreciate that not every Member will share the same level of concern about that linkage, but, for our students, we have always tried to create a three-country equivalence between England, Northern Ireland and Wales. That is of significance to the examinations boards, the results and because such a large percentage of our students go to universities across the water. Therefore, having some level of linkage is very important. If we were seen simply to be, if the Member forgives the pun, "ourselves alone", and took a view that entirely deviated from everything, in the longer run the people who would suffer would be our students.
Before I move on to discuss A levels and AS levels, I want to set out the rationale that I have announced for GCSEs. Over the weekend, I carefully considered advice from CCEA about the imminent award of GCSEs. I decided over the weekend and announced on Monday that it would be in the best interests of our young people to change the original decision and directed CCEA to award all candidates with the grades that had been calculated by their teachers — the centre-assessed grades.
A number of factors led to that decision. I have mentioned the internal Northern Ireland market, but there was also the fact that, while there was a clear remedy that could be used for the A levels and AS levels in the form of a robust appeals system, a lack of evidence of individual achievement meant that could not be used to the same extent with GCSEs. That would have rendered an appeals systems very difficult and time-consuming and created a risk that many students would have found themselves without results before, perhaps, decisions would have needed to be made and, in some cases, students would not have received their results until September or into the autumn. Also, the methodology for GCSEs could not bring in the prior performance of individuals, because there was no robust comparable data.
Turning to AS levels and A levels —.
I am happy to speak to the Member afterwards. He will appreciate that I have only four minutes left.
Turning to AS levels and A levels, Members will be aware that I directed CCEA to review all awards issued last week and issue a fresh set of results that were based on the higher of the original standardised grade or the teacher-assessed grade. Those that received standardised grades that are higher than the centre-assessed grades will retain the higher award. While I believe that that is the right thing to do in the current circumstances, I recognise that there is still an importance in standardisation and comparability of grades across centres. That will be something that we will have to bring into play.
Whatever concerns I had and have in relation to the fairness or equality in any of these things, my principal concern was on the basis of ensuring that our young people were not treated in a disadvantaged manner compared to their peers elsewhere. There were discussions between ourselves and England. Wales was seeking a similar approach. It was not simply a question of us following England, but whenever we have a situation where the English market represents about 85% of students in the UK as a whole, we simply could not go in some solo direction. So, yesterday, we ended up announcing at exactly the same time as England. Wales announced roughly about an hour before us, but all three nations were kept in step. Whatever other concerns there are, we now have a situation where all parts of the United Kingdom are in exactly the same position as regards all the qualifications.
I will mention briefly the implications. There are implications that have not been mentioned that may be of a less substantial nature than higher education. There will be implications because of the increase in the grade awards that will create issues for post-primary schools and further education colleges because there is likely to be a shift in where pupils are looking to go. That is something that will need to be addressed. The principal problem has been recognised within higher education particularly. Let us make it very clear that that will be a challenge to the Executive. There will have to be a UK-wide solution as part of that because that level of funding cannot simply be plucked out of the air.
Let us be very clear: had a different system been put in place in March and had we ended up with 95% A* to C, there would have been massive pressure around the number of additional places at university because a larger number of students would have been in a position here to seek those places. That will have an implication for the cap, and all of us, from whatever party, will need to work together to be able to change that cap and provide that additional funding.
I will deal briefly with a couple of other points. Mr O'Dowd mentioned the reopening of schools. One of the unfortunate aspects was that while all the focus was on examinations, a revised restart paper was sent out last week to all schools. It was comprehensive in nature, covering 70 pages, with the advice and guidance provided absolutely consistent once again with the health advice from the Public Health Agency.
One of the lessons that has to be learned here and elsewhere is that there is no substitute for having examinations. It is the only thing that can be seen to be entirely robust and fair. Going with that, as we move ahead, underlines the absolute necessity of having a full, safe return to school, five days a week, so that we can ensure that all our pupils, battered and bruised as they will be by the COVID situation, are given the best possible chance to progress into the future.
Thank you, Minister. Before I call Justin McNulty to make a winding-up speech on the motion, I remind Mr McNulty that the convention is that Members or Ministers who seeking to amend their own motion are invited to address the motion and the amendment together when moving and winding. The Member will, therefore, have 10 minutes.
Welcome back. It is good to have you in the hot seat. Hopefully, conditions around COVID will remain the same to allow you to stay here. We all have our part to play to ensure that people remain safe in our society, and I take responsibility in that regard.
I will start by paying tribute to a hero of mine, John Hume, whose funeral it was a huge honour for me to attend. I was a member of the guard of honour, but we were not even able to be at the service because of the COVID conditions and the circumstances around that. It was sad that John did not get the send-off that he deserved, but the family was so strong about following the guidelines. It was a really dignified, beautiful send-off for a hero to me and to so many people on this island and someone whose legacy we can all be proud of in the Chamber and on this island.
I will make a winding-up speech on the SDLP motion and amendment as tabled and debated here today. I thank all Members for their very informed, passionate and measured contributions throughout the debate. As I see it, there are three groupings of pupils who have been impacted in different ways by this grading. For some, it has been a crisis; for others — those who did well — it has not. There are pupils who did well. Their grades were not reassessed, and they will not need to be regraded. They got the marks that they expected and for which they worked diligently. Well done to those pupils. Congratulations. There are those who were disgruntled when they received their downgraded results — some 11,000 pupils. Thankfully, those grades will now be rectified. Well done to those students for their forbearance and patience and for voicing their disillusionment. Well done to their teachers, principals and parents for supporting them. The last grouping is those students who did not do so well and will not be regraded. They did not apply themselves to their course, for whatever reason. Guys, I am with you. My A levels were downgraded, not by an algorithm or an anomaly but because I did not fully commit myself to education in school. I was more focused on football and messing around. I say to those students that some of the most successful people I know did not get their A levels or their GCSEs. Other options are open to you. You can take a further education approach.
It is good to have you back, Mr Speaker. Thank you very much, Mr McNulty, for giving way to me. Today, we are having an incredibly important debate that impacts on our young people, and we stand resolutely with those young people. I asked you to give way because we need to send out that clear message: that their futures do not depend on the exams set when they are 16, 18 or 11 years of age. I left school at the age of 15, and I was very lucky that I was able to go to a public house in Moira called the Four Trees, where I served an apprenticeship, as it was then. I now represent Moira as an MLA. With good, hard work, there is plenty of opportunity out there. We need to send out a clear message to our young people across Northern Ireland. I will not be long, Mr Speaker, but it is important that we embrace the young people who have not done as well as they would have liked. The future will not be mapped out for them by exam results but by good, hard work and dedication. I ask the House to commend the entrepreneurs who are able to start their own businesses. They are the wealth creators.
Thank you. I absolutely agree that results do not define these young people; these young people define themselves.
I will try to quickly go through as many of the points made today as I can. Daniel McCrossan, who tabled the motion, talked about the impact on young people, teachers, principals and parents, and how they came together to force this volte-face. He raised his frustration with the flawed system, the delays in recognising its failure and blindly following London's lead. He wants visibility of the algorithm, is thankful that the Minister has said that it is now available, and he questioned the anomalies. He talked about access to university places, UCAS and how all of that will be synchronised and coordinated to ensure that all the issues are addressed. He thanked teachers, pupils and those with specific expertise in the area for their efforts.
Cara Hunter made a very important intervention on the impact on young people's mental health. Maurice Bradley spoke about "unprecedented times" forcing unprecedented actions, and he thanked teachers for their efforts in the process. Karen Mullan talked about students being "failed" in a system where 11,000 grades were downgraded, and teachers' knowledge and expertise were dismissed.
Robbie Butler applauded the strong voice of pupils, parents, teachers, principals and even politicians in coming together to force this outcome. Some 11,000 grades need to be changed, and CCEA must act with haste. Robbie also referred to the strong impact of the anomaly on a student who had previously been a looked-after child, and we have to recognise that there are young people who do not have an easy pathway through education and need all the help and support that they can get.
Chris Lyttle referred to "startling inconsistencies" in the grade-awarding system.
Mr Lyttle also referred to the Minister's following of London's lead in school closures and the awarding of grades. He sought clarification on timescales and considerations in relation to when CCEA will award results, which will impact on access to universities.
Robin Newton said that the education system here is second to none. I do not think that the midst of a fiasco is an appropriate time to say that. Although I concur with other Members who commented that our educators are world class and second to none, this situation obviously demonstrates that there are serious major challenges within our education system. We export so many of our young people every year, building only a diaspora instead of the knowledge pool here.
Chris Stalford said that no one could have foreseen the circumstances that we are facing today, given the global pandemic and its impact on pupils through reduced class time. Well, lots of people foresaw it, including my colleague Daniel McCrossan.
Caoimhe Archibald criticised the Minister for defending an algorithm
instead of defending the hopes and dreams of our young people. Sorry, I cannot even read my own writing; I need to go back to school.
Sinead McLaughlin said that we have done our young people a great disservice. She put a major emphasis on the MaSN cap, saying that it is a noose around the neck of students here, benefiting only the North's diaspora, breaking up families and draining the talent pool. We need to restructure the system here because the system, as it stands, is not fit for purpose.
Rosemary Barton referred to the impact of an unseen algorithm on the lives of pupils and young people. John O'Dowd empathised with the position of the Minister of Education, saying that he had been there, done that and bought the t-shirt. He referenced external exam boards setting examinations for our schools and proposed having only one exam board here.
Kellie Armstrong paid tribute to pupils and teachers and to the students and teachers' unions and their dignified response to the crisis.
Patsy McGlone queried why CCEA changed 65% of grades. He asked whether an equality impact assessment would be carried out to establish whether pupils from non-selective schools or disadvantaged areas have been discriminated against as part of the process.
Roy Beggs questioned the awarding system as it is clear to anybody that there are obvious flaws in the system.
Matthew O'Toole said that an approach to prevent any grades being inflated in this year of all years was the wrong approach to adopt. He said that the random injustice of an algorithm was very unfair.
Questions remain, including when will the results be revised by CCEA? Will all students be accepted onto their first choice course when they get their grades? Will the MaSN cap be lifted to allow universities to accommodate greater numbers? Numerous questions remain, but most pertinent in my mind is that this is an outlier year. We have all talked about the unprecedented nature of the virus and the impact on education and exams. Let this be an outlier year of opportunity for our young people, where they see and remember this year as the year that gave them the leg up to go and achieve their dreams and achieve special things. That is not necessarily just down the educational path, but let this be an outlier year where our young people get a leg up. Let it be an outlier year for opportunity.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly is deeply concerned that the modelling used to calculate grades for AS levels and A levels has awarded incorrect results for students across Northern Ireland; welcomes the Minister of Education’s intervention to base GCSE grades on teacher-predicted grades; and calls on the Minister to apply the same logic and approach so that A-level and AS-level students are awarded the highest of their AS, teacher-predicted or CCEA grades due to exceptional Covid-19 circumstances; recognises the immense stress, anxiety and disruption this has caused many students; further recognises the resultant implications for local colleges and universities; and calls on the Minister to work urgently with Executive colleagues to provide clarity and guidance to students and educational institutions.
Before I put the Question on the Adjournment, I remind Members that the next plenary sitting is anticipated to be on Monday 7 September. The Business Committee will meet on Wednesday 2 September and Order Papers will issue after that.
During the remaining recess period, meetings of the Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response may be scheduled. If that occurs, Members will be notified in the usual way.
Adjourned at 2.34 pm.