Majority disagree with GCSE decision in Northern Ireland school leaders’ survey

09 December 2015

Nearly 90 per cent of Northern Ireland school leaders who took part in a survey disagree with the Education Minister’s decision to stick with the old GCSE grading system and fear that pupils will be disadvantaged.

Education Minister John O’Dowd has confirmed that the grading of GCSEs in Northern Ireland will continue under the alphabetical A*-G system despite England changing to a new numerical 9-1 scale.

Furthermore, this requirement does not apply only to Northern Ireland’s awarding body, the CCEA, but also to English examination boards wishing to offer qualifications in Northern Ireland which must also use the old A*-G grades rather than the numerical system.

A survey conducted by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Northern Ireland has found that the vast majority of the 56 members who responded disagree with these decisions.

Most felt that the new 9-1 scale will become accepted and required by universities and employers nationally. They were also concerned that the new benchmark for a ‘good GCSE’ of Grade 5 is set higher than the current Grade C meaning the two systems do not equate. They are anxious that pupils with a Grade C in Northern Ireland will be disadvantaged in comparison to those qualified with a Grade 5.

The majority also doubted whether English awarding bodies will be able to provide a separate Northern Ireland grading system. They fear this may jeopardise an ‘open market’ in which qualifications are available from these boards, as well as Northern Ireland’s CCEA, which they feel is important for pupil curriculum and career choices.

Stephen Black, ASCL Northern Ireland President, commented:

“The results of our survey reflect the widespread belief among school leaders that isolating Northern Ireland from wider GCSE reforms will disadvantage young people here. Our students will be competing for jobs and university places in a wider national labour market with others who will have qualifications potentially perceived as of a higher standard.

“As the new Grade 5 is set higher than the existing Grade C there is a danger that pupils in Northern Ireland with a Grade C will no longer be perceived as having a ‘good GCSE’. This has huge potential implications for job selection criteria with national and multi-national employers.

“Currently, our pupils outperform their counterparts in other UK jurisdictions at GCSE with 78.7 per cent achieving Grades A*-C compared to 68.8 per cent in England, and at A level Northern Ireland candidates score 83 per cent A*-C compared to 77.2 per cent in England.

“The hard work of pupils and teachers in our schools must be defended and continue to translate into top grades which are recognised and valued nationally both now and in the future.”

At ASCL Northern Ireland’s recent annual conference in Belfast, members strongly advised that Northern Ireland should switch to a 9-1 grading system for GCSE, and this case was made to Mr O’Dowd, who attended the event.


The survey of ASCL Northern Ireland members was conducted between 30 November and 4 December. The full results were:

Q1. Do you agree with the decision not to adopt the new 9-1 GCSE grading scale in Northern Ireland?

Yes: 12.5% (7 respondents)
No: 87.5% (49)

Q2. If you agree, what are your reasons? Indicate as many options as you wish.

a. It is in the best interests of learners to continue with awarding grades in the existing A*-G system
33.3% (3)

b. Remaining with A*-G will avoid unnecessary complexity
77.8% (7)

c. Universities and employers already cope with diverse qualifications from UK regions
66.7% (6)

d. Other
33.3% (3)

Q3. If you disagree, what are your reasons? Indicate as many options as you wish.

a. The new 9-1 scale will become accepted and required by universities and employers nationally
81.2% (39)

b. The new benchmark for a ‘good GCSE’ of Grade 5 is set higher than the current Grade C meaning the two systems do not equate
91.7% (44)

c. Pupils with a Grade C in Northern Ireland will be disadvantaged in comparison with those qualified with a Grade 5
85.4% (41)

d. Other
31.2% (15)

Q4. Do you agree with the requirement for English awarding bodies to conform to the A*-G grading in examinations in Northern Ireland?

Yes: 8.9% (5)
No: 91% (51)

Q5. If you agree with this decision, what are your reasons? Indicate as many options as you wish.

a. Our qualifications should primarily meet the needs of local higher education and employers
20% (1)

b. We should not blindly follow England’s qualification reforms
40% (2)

c. Northern Ireland’s curriculum should not be dictated by English examinations
80% (4)

d. Other
40% (2)

Q6. If you disagree with this decision, what are your reasons? Indicate as many options as you wish.

a. English awarding bodies cannot/ will not adapt to a separate Northern Ireland grading system
90.2% (46)

b. Pupil curriculum/ career choices will be restricted without an open qualifications market
70.59% (36)

c. Separate Northern Ireland GCSEs might be perceived as a lower standard in future
86.3% (44)

d. Other
22.53% (12)

Q7. What post do you hold in your school?

a. Headteacher
44.6% (25)

b. Deputy headteacher
26.6% (16)

c. Assistant headteacher
8.9% (5)

d. Other
17.9% (10)

Q8. What type of school do you represent?

a. Voluntary Grammar
51.8% (29)

b. Controlled
41% (23)

c. Maintained
1.79% (1)

d Integrated
1.79% (1)

e. Other
3.57% (2)