What next for generation Covid?: How the government can address disruptions to learning and exams in Northern Ireland.

What next for generation Covid?: How the government can address disruptions to learning and exams in Northern Ireland.

What next for generation Covid?: How the government can address disruptions to learning and exams in Northern Ireland.

Covid–19 has led to national and localised school closures across the United Kingdom (UK), creating significant disruption to education for young people.  This blog explores recent devolved government decision making in the UK regarding planned examinations in 2021, before considering the implications for Northern Ireland.  We explore the challenges associated with examination reform and conclude by exploring wider issues surrounding educational recovery. 

How has Covid–19 disrupted young people’s education?

Our previous report explored the issue of ‘lockdown learning’ following national closures in the UK in some detail.  In summary, some young people may have experienced learning loss and/or disruption during the initial 3–month school closure that began in March 2020.  Throughout this term, the loss may be further compounded by school closures as a result of Covid–19 related illness and regulations on self–isolation. 

Recent data indicates that overall school attendance (pre and post primary) for the period of the week commencing 12th October was 92.7%, compared with 88% in Scotland and 82% in Wales.  Within Northern Ireland, the figures show that 84.7% of pupils physically attended school, whilst 2.4% were learning remotely from home and 5.6% were self–isolating/shielding due to Covid–19.

Based on previous enrolment figures for primary and post–primary children in 2019/20, it is estimated that 25,515 pupils across Northern Ireland were not in school for week beginning 12.10.20 due to Covid–19 related issues.

Inconsistent attendance due to the need to self–isolate may reduce educational outcomes and contribute to the lockdown learning gap that some young people experienced during the first national lockdown. 

Children’s education may have been further disrupted due to short–term school closures during recent national restrictions in Wales and Northern Ireland. During the 17 day ‘firebreak’ lockdown, Welsh primary and ‘special’ schools remained opened.  However, secondary schools reverted to remote learning for all year groups, expect those in Year 7 and 8.  The Northern Ireland Executive closed all education facilities one week early before the planned autumn break on 26.10.20.  No measures have been put in place to address this week of lost learning. 

What measures have been put in place to address disrupted learning?

The UK government announced funding support for educational recovery in England following the national lockdown in March 2020, with the devolved administrations receiving funding via the Barnett formula in the usual way.  Our previous report highlighted the need for a comprehensive educational recovery plan in Northern Ireland that includes an emphasis on improving the consistency of digital learning, enhancing testing and tracing and committing to a national recovery strategy.

The Northern Ireland Executive have funded the ‘Engage’ programme, a non–evidenced based recovery model, implemented locally within individual schools.  This programme does not include funding or educational provision for children in ‘special schools’. 

Exam disruptions: What steps have been taken across the UK’s regions?

The Scottish government have cancelled National 5 (similar to GCSE qualifications) examinations in 2021 and replaced these with teacher assessments and coursework.  An independent review established by the Welsh government has recently concluded that any form of examinations in 2021 could be ‘unfair’. The Welsh government have accepted the committee’s findings and will assess pupils based on ‘robust and moderated assessment undertaken in schools and colleges’.   

The government in England have not outlined any alternative assessment models for their examinations in 2021, other than a three–week delay to allow students and teachers additional time to prepare.  This decision continues to be under review and may be updated in December 2020. 

Disruptions and current solutions in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Executive have not proposed any radical compensatory approaches to address the impact of Covid–19 for young people completing GCSE and A–level examinations.    GCSE examinations planned for mid–November have been delayed by two weeks and similar delays to GCSE examinations may occur in January to compensate for further disruptions. This decision has been challenged by the Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner and the Interim Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland, both of which have called for examinations to be cancelled in 2021.

Unlike considerations in Scotland and Wales, the Department for Education (DfE) has ruled out completely cancelling either GCSE or A–level exams. The Minister for Education has cited the importance of exams being comparable and portable with the rest of the UK as part of his rationale for continuing ahead with exams. However, the Welsh and Scottish government approach to formal examinations undermines the minister’s argument. 

The variations in approaches to educational recovery highlights concerns regarding equity and fairness for all schools and pupils across the UK.  Whilst individual governments must be empowered to make their own decisions, young people in Northern Ireland may be disadvantaged if there aren’t changes to plans for exams in summer 2021. 

The impact of disrupted learning at any stage of education is problematic, but failing to reach one’s potential during GCSE and A–level years may be a particularly worrisome issue, particularly as these examinations may enable participation and access to highly selective careers and employment.  Moreover, the types of qualifications young people earn and the future opportunities available to them as a result also impact their quality of life, chances of employment and socio–economic status in the long run. Northern Ireland already has a higher-than-average rate of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET) compared to the UK as a whole, and in the ongoing pandemic, there is added concern that current conditions may increase NEET figures across the UK. Furthermore, Brexit may place a greater emphasis on national skills development and has the potential to create a more cohesive approach to skills and training within the UK.

Changing assessment processes – a cautionary tale

The recent experience of teacher–based assessment during the summer of 2020 demonstrates one of the challenges in alternate grading arrangements processes.  This method of calculation was criticised for its potential to unfairly assign grades based on those previously earned at each school, rather than individual pupils’ work, abilities or potential. Although grades based on teachers’, schools’ and colleges’ predictions for individual students were later accepted as a more accurate and less biased alternative, previous research has shown that students also expressed concerns about the influence of their relationships with teachers on their grades. 

Previous research has similarly shown that teacher’s predictions for A–level grades only accurately reflected actual grades achieved in the exams in 16% of cases (Bhopal & Myers, 2020). Teacher predicted grades are based on what a student is capable of and so are typically higher. Furthermore, some young people may wish to sit their exams having committed to significant periods of revision and sacrifice. Many current students have also expressed a desire to sit their exams out of concern that any predicted grades would be viewed as inferior compared to those earned in previous years by universities, colleges or employers. These students felt as if they would be labelled as the ‘covid generation’, a label which would follow them throughout their lives and negatively impact their futures.

Previous experiences of exam reform – divergence, instability and uncertainty

Reforms made in 2013 to GCSE’s in Northern Ireland aimed to place more emphasis on ‘preparation for life and developing young people’s skills’, diverging slightly with those reforms implemented in England around the same time.  Whilst the concept of this approach was welcomed by some, the implementation of the reforms across the UK may have initially had an adverse impact on young people’s attainment levels.  Data has since shown that grades dropped in the period immediately following changes, before slowly improving once teachers and students had a better understanding of the assessment requirements (Barrance & Elwood, 2018).  These reforms had the potential to lower attainment rates, which if lowered by one grade, could have made a difference to student’s subsequent educational and training journey (Elwood 2012; Barrance and Elwood 2018).  Previous research demonstrates the need to be cautious about assessment reforms, particularly in the context of Covid–19, which has had a disproportionately negative impact on young people.

A sudden change to the format of recognised qualifications across the different parts of the UK may also create confusion and anxiety for various stakeholder groups including young people, teachers and future employers.

This blog has so far considered the options of cancelling examinations, teacher–based assessments and simply delaying the examination processes.  We will now consider wider issues within educational recovery policies to support children and young people in Northern Ireland.    

This blog proposed three themes for consideration;

1. An educational recovery programme is required to support teachers and their students in Northern Ireland

The absence of a strategic educational recovery plan to support students to reach their potential is likely to further disadvantage those affected by lockdown learning.  Northern Ireland requires an innovative plan to address the learning loss experienced during lockdown restrictions.  These learning losses are likely to increase during subsequent local and national school closures.  Northern Ireland has a history of under–investment in education compared to other high–income European countries on a per pupil basis.  Furthermore, some areas in the DfE, for example Special Educational Needs (SEN) have experienced historical difficulties in service provision prior to Covid–19.

Whilst formal examinations provide a relatively objective outcome of attainment, they are not an end point of life–long learning.  It is therefore important that educational recovery does not simply focus on the end product of GCSE and A–level grades.  Pupils at all stages have experienced educational loss due to Covid–19 and may continue to be at a disadvantage, whether in the next year of primary school or in moving to their next stage in college, university or training.  It is important that educational recovery addresses all cohorts of young people, rather than focusing solely on GCSE and A–level grades as a measure of success.

The DfE has so far demonstrated limited ambition in developing an educational recovery plan to address educational loss and emotional wellbeing during the pandemic.  The current position to delay examinations without targeted support will likely further disadvantage those students experiencing lockdown learning loss.  The absence of a viable alternative should not mean that the default position is to revert to the status quo of testing.

We have previously recommended investment in a national tutor programme, similar to that already in existence in England, to level–up educational loss.  Investment in this plan would provide much needed employment and occupational experience for graduates in Northern Ireland. A tutor support programme should be integrated into the admissions process to identify those young people who may require additional educational support to reach their potential in FE or HE.

Interventions delivered during this period should also be continually evaluated to ascertain their effectiveness and explore strengths and gaps in the current educational recovery strategy. 

2. A holistic approach to Further Education and Higher Education admissions is required to acknowledge educational loss or disadvantage created by Covid–19

The changes to assessment in Scotland and Wales could lead to young people in Northern Ireland being at risk of lower attainment than their Scottish and Welsh peers. 

The Department of Education’s consultation involving young people in earlier decisions about GCSEs was welcomed.  However, ongoing and cross–departmental dialogue is required to address concerns from young people, parents/carers and teachers regarding the future of assessment in 2021.  Clarification is required regarding the transferability of GCSE and A–Levels results across the UK in order to avoid students from Northern Ireland being placed at unfair disadvantage. A joined–up strategy between schools, examiners, FE/HE and employer that recognises the impact of the pandemic on attainment is required. 

Holistic admissions within college education in the United States has become increasingly accepted as an enhanced method of selecting candidates based on wider life skills, extracurricular activities and an interview process. 

An increased emphasis on a holistic admissions approach in the UK may help acknowledge and contextualise young people’s educational experiences during the pandemic.  Moreover, holistic admissions should take into account evidence–based factors that decrease a young person’s ability to reach their potential during the pandemic.  These factors could include digital poverty, parental education levels and Socio–Economic Status, all of which have been found to be risk factors that contribute to educational disadvantage during lockdown. 

3. Strategic careers advice is required to support the ‘Covid’ generation of young people transitioning from post–primary to education and employment

The cancellation of exams, changes in curriculum assessment and general stress and disruption experienced during the pandemic may mean that some young people do not reach their academic potential.  Thus, young people may experience a change in career and employment opportunities made available to them.  Decision making about educational, training and employment pathways will be significantly influenced by the global pandemic, which has created historical changes in sectors that previously employed high levels of young people (e.g. hospitality). 

Young people may no longer be on their expected career trajectory and/or the sector they were working towards may no longer have the capacity to offer employment or training.  Therefore, intensive careers support and guidance is required to support young people at this critical life stage of making educational or career choices.

Northern Ireland has a history of skills shortages and difficulties in promoting lifelong learning, particularly for those in mid–career roles.  Covid–19 may offer the Executive an additional opportunity to embed a culture of lifelong learning and support for those who historically underachieve, rather than concentrate efforts on ‘traditional’ examination routes (e.g. GCSE and A–Levels). We have previously highlighted the need for a national skills strategy for workers on furlough and at risk of redundancy. 


 Ms Anna DeWitt, Research Assistant and the Pivotal research team.





BBC article: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-54723339

The Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) (2020) November 2020 Examinations Series Delayed by 2 weeks, Available at: https://ccea.org.uk/news/2020/october/november-2020-examinations-series-delayed-2-weeks (Accessed: 4th November 2020 ).


Meredith, R. (2020) ‘Covid–19: November GCSE exams in NI postponed for two weeks’, BBC News, 20th October, p. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-54607507.


Richardson, H. (2020) ‘Wales urged to scrap GCSE exams in favour of assessments’, BBC News, 29th October, p. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-54723339.






























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  • Date

    Fri 13 Nov


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