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Education Minister rules out cancelling A-Levels and GCSEs next summer

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The Education Minister has ruled out cancelling A-levels and GCSES because it would “increase” students’ anxiety.

Peter Weir is under mounting pressure to give an alternative to 2021 tests after Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma called for them to be axed today (Nov 10) over fears for students’ mental health – the same day Wales announced it would use assessment-based grades.

England and Northern Ireland are now the only jurisdictions where exams are set to go ahead.

Mr Weir promised no children in NI would be disadvantaged by next summer’s tests, adding: “Children’s wellbeing is fundamentally important and central to all I do. However, cancelling exams at present will increase rather than decrease our young people’s stress and anxiety.

“I have talked to many young people in recent weeks who are very anxious for exams to go ahead.

“The Commissioner talks about the terrible pressure of ongoing tests and assessments.

“If exams are cancelled, schools will need to build a strong body of evidence and work if they are to award grades. How would such a system possibly decrease pressure on young people? “

Mr Weir is facing calls from MLAs and teachers’ unions to avoid the “fiasco” of his earlier u-turn on algorithm based grades, and bring in a contingency plan.

UUP Education spokesman Robbie Butler said the Minister should heed Ms Yiasouma, who’s supported by Mental Health Champion Siobhan O’Neill and the Secondary Students’ Union (SSUNI).

Mr Butler added: “The intervention locally adds serious weight to the growing calls on Peter Weir to put the wellbeing of our students first and develop robust provisions that don’t echo the disastrous iteration of the algorithm for the 2020 cohort.”

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carrol said it was “the only decent thing to do”, while Sinn Féin’s Karen Mullan urged the Minister to reveal his contingency plan for 2021, warning other jurisdictions were “way ahead”.

But Mr Weir said students’ prospects would suffer if NI chose a different path to England.

He added: “There are significant risks around the comparability and portability of these key qualifications, particularly A Levels. There is potential that the many thousands of young people who wish to gain entry to university in England may be disadvantaged. ”

But Ulster Teachers’ Union (UTU) said NI students were already worse off.

SSUNI said pupils are in a constant cycle of assessment and losing learning “every day”, with some having had to isolate three times already.

Stephen McCord, president of UTU and head of science at Larne High said little had been done to give students a fair go.

He added: “We have many of our members reporting students in exam years who are experiencing the added impact of isolation, illness and even at times staff absence.

“All of these things are having an impact on the health and well-being of our young people. Examinations are stressful enough without the uncertainty.”

He added: “We have many of our members reporting students in exam years who are experiencing the added impact of isolation, illness and even at times staff absence.

“All of these things are having an impact on the health and well-being of our young people. Examinations are stressful enough without the uncertainty.”

The National Association of Head Teachers said cancelling exams must be considered and called for “urgent, concrete contingency planning”, adding: “In an ideal world we would wait until the investigation into the exam fiasco of 2020 is complete so we can apply lessons learned; however, we simply do not have time to do this.

“These children must not be disadvantaged or suffer anxiety due to their experiences of Covid-19.”

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