Covid-19: A-level students to sit fewer exams in 2021

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

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Image source, Getty-Images/Tim Macpherson

A-level students in NI will take fewer exams next summer, Education Minister Peter Weir has confirmed.

He insisted exams will not be cancelled, but said they would be "underpinned by contingencies for all scenarios".

The content of many GCSE courses and the number of GCSE exams has already been reduced due to the pandemic.

The number of A-level exam papers a pupil will have to take in each subject will also be reduced.

Mr Weir told the assembly that students would have the opportunity to omit up to 60% of their AS or A-level assessments, meaning for a "significant" number of subjects, this would mean taking only one exam.

"At the centre of this reduction is choice - our schools and colleges will choose which unit or units of assessment their pupils will take," he said.

"Our young people will be assessed on topics and content in which they feel most confident and well prepared, allowing them to demonstrate their skills and knowledge to the highest possible level."

Mr Weir also reiterated that the examinations board in NI, CCEA, will delay the start of the summer exam series by one week to provide more time for preparation.

'Standing firm on exams'

He told the assembly that he had decided grading should "carry forward the overall generosity and standards of 2020", which saw students awarded teacher-predicted grades after examinations were cancelled.

"This will ensure the 2021 cohort are treated fairly, relative to their 2020 peers. Students will be awarded more generous grades, in line with last summer's significantly improved results," he added.

Mr Weir has faced calls to cancel exams, but said approaches in other parts of the UK were "confusing".

The Scottish government has decided to cancel Higher exams in 2021, meaning that pupils' final grades will be based on the judgement of their schools.

In Wales, pupils will face exams in class in the spring rather than the summer.

Exams are also set to go ahead in England in 2021 and measures like more generous grading and advance notice of topics have already been announced.

"I have also heard the quieter voices of those who are equally anxious that exams should go ahead, and have urged me to stand firm on this," said Mr Weir.

"Cancelling exams would undoubtedly lead to different sorts of anxieties for young people, and would put incredible additional pressures on schools."

Image caption,
Mr Weir said he was considering a Covid exam allowance for young people who miss a significant amount of school due to the pandemic

The minister, who has already announced changes to 2021 GCSE exams, added that students taking GCSE Mathematics exams next year will be given "additional support materials".

"These support sheets will relieve candidates of the burden of memorising all of the information they would normally have to," he said.

"I hope they will feel more prepared and more confident as a result. This aligns with recent announcements in England."

Mr Weir said he recognised some young people had missed significant amounts of school while others had missed none, due to the pandemic.

He said he wanted to reassure students who had to take time off that there would be special consideration for those candidates.

"I also will explore the possibility of a Covid allowance or tariff for young people who have missed a significant number of days face-to-face teaching due to self-isolating," he said.

"This would allow for specific account to be taken of the variations in disrupted learning since September," he added, stating it would be separate from the existing special consideration scheme.

Mr Weir said his priority was to ensure students in NI were not at a disadvantage from other parts of the UK, and that "fairness" would continue to be his priority.

Some pupils have also missed time in class since schools reopened as they have had to self-isolate after being identified as a close contact of a positive Covid case.