Ministerial Statement on GCSEs and A Levels: Fundamental Review

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  Ba mhaith liom ráiteas a dhéanamh faoin toradh ar an athbhreithniú ar cháilíochtaí GCSE agus A leibhéal.  I want to make a statement regarding the outcome of the review of GCSE and A-level qualifications.  I commissioned the review from the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) on 1 October last year, and it has now reported.

The review was commissioned following a series of policy announcements in England.  Those announcements sparked considerable debate about high-stakes qualifications across these islands.  The Secretary of State for Education in England is at liberty to determine what he feels is right for England, but, when the brand is equally shared on a tripartite basis with the North of Ireland and Wales, he and his officials need to give due regard to the implications for those jurisdictions.

As I outlined last year, I do not believe that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the GCSEs and A levels that we have, and CCEA’s report confirms that.  The report contains 49 recommendations and helpfully condenses into one vehicle a range of short-term, medium-term and long-term actions that will provide a way forward for our next generation of learners.
The report draws on evidence provided by a wide range of stakeholders and was overseen by an expert group.  The group consisted of employers, teachers, the FE and HE sectors and education specialists from the South of Ireland and Scotland.  I would personally like to thank that expert group for its contribution to this significant work.  This is only the start of the process.  I am sure that we will continue to call on the members of that group for their views on the detailed work to be taken forward.
The report helpfully builds on the direction of travel that I have set in place here over the past two years, one that is based on engagement with as wide a range of stakeholders as possible, including the teaching profession.  That involves listening to their views, challenging and testing those views and using their expertise and experience to determine the most appropriate way forward for our learners and our economy.
Among the recommendations is that GCSEs and A levels be retained in the short to medium term, with revisions to reflect the needs of our education policy and the economy.  This would allow the qualifications to be developed to support our curriculum and reflect the needs of employers and higher education.  There is also a need for flexibility in the design of GCSE and A-level qualifications to meet individual subject requirements.  The qualification system should meet the needs of as wide a range of learners as possible.  It is important that study from the age of 14 to 18 enables all our young people to develop wider skills that are of particular importance in further study and employment.
I recognise that the teaching profession is wary of the implications of significant change, particularly in high-stakes qualifications.  However, faced with the choice of defining our own policy or following the Secretary of State for Education’s proposed reforms in England, there was unanimous support for the former.  We will lead our own path and determine our own future.
This review makes recommendations on how GCSEs and A levels might be taken forward and how the focus on improvements in literacy, numeracy and ICT skills could be supported by the qualifications system.  It is important that a qualifications system provides opportunities for every young person to achieve his or her potential.
Recommendations have been made to develop, support and value alternative qualification routes to the traditional GCSE and A-level pathway.  I welcome that, as it supports the aims of the entitlement framework to provide all our young people with a rich and varied curriculum.  The entitlement framework is now statutory in our schools, and the full requirements will be in place by September 2015.  It is about providing courses that are relevant to young people, engage and motivate them and provide clear, relevant progression pathways for them to continue in education or move into training or employment.  The economy demands that education help young people to prepare for a world of work that is fast changing and very different from when you or I were at school.  In 2011-12, some 94·2% of school leavers remained in education, employment or training.  We must continue to work to make sure that labour market information informs careers provision, informs choices and informs young people and their parents at the right time. 
Young people who see their time in education as relevant are more likely to stay motivated and engaged with their learning.  The currency of qualifications taken by learners in the North of Ireland must be ensured.  Work must continue to provide young people here with qualifications that will take them wherever they wish to go.  In the longer term, the sustainability of the qualifications strategy will have to be considered, taking account of changes being made to the qualifications in England and Wales and discussions on the use of qualification brand names.
The review draws together lessons from international best practice, and I would like to see that work built on in the longer term to promote continuous improvement in our qualifications.  We need to start developing the vision now for the qualifications system that we want in 10 to 15 years' time.
I am satisfied that the report reflects opinions on the need for short-term changes, as well as an imperative to take a longer-term view of the qualifications system here.  If necessary, that may include the consideration of a system that is independent from but demonstrably comparable with neighbouring jurisdictions.  Given its magnitude and potential impact, I intend to consult on the recommendations in this final report, following which I will announce my decisions on the way forward.
Ba mhaith liom cloisteáil ó CTRí, ó ghairm na múinteoireachta, ó bhoird gobharnóirí, ó fhostóirí, ó thuismitheoirí, agus ó dhaltaí.  Cuirim fáilte roimh gach tuairim.  I want to hear views from MLAs, the teaching profession, boards of governors, employers, parents and pupils alike.  All comments are welcome.
This is an extremely important and thought-provoking piece of work.  It confirms where we are now and what we should strive for if we are to compete internationally with the best education provision in the world.  I want to assure the Assembly that I will continue to take decisions that are in the best interests of all our young people, decisions that will safeguard their future, build on the positive aspects of our current education system and reach forward to the next quarter of the century to provide an international educational passport to success.  I commend the review to the Assembly and encourage everyone to contribute to the consultation that will follow.

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