Mixed picture at schools emerges as A-level results opened

Students sat at their desks in an exam hall.
Some schools have hit out after some pupils received lower grades than they had expected.

A mixed picture has emerged as thousands of pupils opened their A-level results across Northern Ireland.

The results, based on predicted grades and past performance after the coronavirus pandemic caused final exams to be cancelled, saw the overall pass rate of pupils achieving an A*-E grade rise by 0.8% to 99.1%.

However, 37% of estimated grades were lowered and 5.3% were raised.

Some schools have hit out after some pupils received lower grades than they had expected.

Bangor Academy principal Matthew Pitts said 63.4% of his school's grades had been lowered while Alan Hutchinson, from Glastry College, said 56% of their grades had been reduced.

St Cecilia's College principal Martine Mulhern said 13% of grades at her school at A2 level were lower than the AS grades.

Other schools have expressed general satisfaction at results issued.

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Pupils achieving the top A* grade increased by one percentage point to 9.8%, while those achieving A* or A grades rose by 2.3 percentage points to 33.2%.

Female students again outperformed their male counterparts at the highest grades, with the gap broadly in line with recent years.

The calculated system also saw performance at AS level improve on 2019.

The percentage attaining a top A grade rose by 2.1 percentage points to 29.4%.

Those attaining an A-E grade rose by 0.9 of a percentage point to 96.4%.

The majority of the results (86%) were issued by the Northern Ireland awarding body, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).

The remaining 14% of results were from exams set by other UK awarding bodies.

Following the cancellation of exams in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the exam bodies had been instructed by Stormont Minister for Education Peter Weir to ensure the calculated results in 2020 were broadly in line with performance in recent years.

While an increase has been recorded, the CCEA is content the rise is not significant enough to impact the integrity of the results set.

Data indicates that the increases in attainment would have been significantly higher if the predicted grades assessed by teachers were used without standardisation.

Teachers were asked to predict the grades of all their pupils.

In 96.7% of cases, their estimates either matched or were within one grade of the final result awarded following standardisation.

Of those, 58% of the results matched exactly.

In 37%, teachers were over-optimistic in their prediction, while in around 5% of tests they underestimated the result.

While that will see many of the grades issued on Thursday being lower than those predicted by teachers, the match rate is higher than last year.

Teachers are asked to predict grades every year in Northern Ireland as part of normal assessment procedures.

In 2019, around 46% of grades match the results attained by pupils and 40% proved overly optimistic.

The CCEA standardisation model asked teachers to give a predicted grade for their pupils and then rank them in order within their class.

The exams body then used other data to standardise the results.

For A-levels, the CCEA model used pupils' AS level results, making adjustments for those who had applied to take resits.

For AS results, the pupils' GCSE results were used, as was the performance by their school over the previous three years.

  • Education Minister Peter Weir MLA spoke to UTV Live at Six:

Commenting on the results, CCEA chief executive Justin Edwards said: "Since the cancellation of the exams, it has been a very unsettling and challenging period for the education community, particularly our students.

"Northern Ireland's students, and those across the UK, Ireland and further afield, due to Covid-19 were unable to sit their exams, as has been commonplace for so many before, and will be for so many in the future.

"All of us at CCEA, working closely with the education community, have strived to ensure that students are able to progress this year.

"As a result of this collaborative work, we have delivered grades to students which we predict they would have achieved had they sat the examinations and which carry the same value as in previous years.

"Northern Ireland students have seen slight increases across grades, which are comparable with previous year-on-year performance for this particular year group."

He added: "The grades received by students this morning will enable them to progress to the next stage of their journey, be it in education or employment. We wish them all every success."

  • CCEA Chief Executive Justin Edwards spoke to Sarah Clarke on UTV Live at Six:

Here is a breakdown of what next steps students can consider:

Can unhappy students challenge their results?

In England, Northern Ireland and Wales, pupils can ask their school or college to check if an administrative error was made when they submitted their grade - and they can ask them to pursue an appeal if this happened. But individual students cannot directly challenge their grades to the exam boards - it needs to be done by a school or college on their behalf.

In Northern Ireland, results are based on teachers' predictions and statistical modelling.

Its exams body, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, said students will have a broader scope to appeal against A-level and GCSE grades.

How is this affecting university applications?

According to figures from university admissions service Ucas, more students have been accepted on UK degree courses this year.

A total of 358,860 applicants have been accepted - a 2.9% rise compared with 2019.

Out of these, 316,730 were accepted on their first choice, up 2.7% on the same point last year.

Ministers had urged universities to adopt a "flexible" approach to assessing applications, with institutions told to hold places for students pending the outcome of any appeal.

But exam boards will have less than four weeks to process appeals, with a UCAS deadline of September 7 for applicants to meet their academic offer conditions.

What about clearing?

So far, 7,600 people have found places through clearing this year.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson MP said a "late clearing process" is expected to be available for pupils taking A-level exams in the autumn.

He said discussions were being held with the university sector so students can possibly start university in January, rather than the usual September/October time.

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