“I believe that schools are best placed to make decisions in light of what they believe is in the best interests of their pupils.”

So sayeth the Northern Ireland Education Minister, Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd.  He’s not, however, speaking about academic selection…  Following a 12-week public consultation on GCSE reform, which ended on 30 December 2011, the NI Education Minister has decided to give no direction on whether schools should use unitised or linear GCSEs. [Let the market decide! – Ed]  Indeed.  From the ministerial press release

Following a 12-week consultation the Minister has decided not to follow England where, following a decision by Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, assessment of GCSEs will be taken at the end of the two-year period (known as the linear route). Instead, schools here will be free to choose between unitised GCSEs (where assessment can be taken throughout the two years) or linear GCSEs.

The Minister said: “I believe that schools are best placed to make decisions in light of what they believe is in the best interests of their pupils. For some schools, the unitised option may be the most suitable, while others may feel the linear route is more appropriate. [added emphasis]

“Many of the views expressed during the consultation here, and in the workshops held with school leaders, acknowledged that whilst many of the issues identified in England might well exist, unitised GCSEs have only been in place here for two years in some subjects. It was therefore felt that change of this nature was too early and the decision to change by Michael Gove did not appear to have been taken on the basis of clear evidence or educational justification.”

When the consultation was announced, the Department’s stated that

It is unlikely that the Minister’s decision on this issue would stop the current position whereby English (and Welsh) awarding organisations offer GCSEs here. The main implications will be for the local awarding body and, depending on the direction taken by the DE Minister, CCEA will have to review the nature of the GCSEs it offers.

Will those English (and Welsh) organisations offer linear and unitised versions?  Is the difference significant enough for a decision to have to be made by them?  Or will schools here offering those organisations’ GCSEs simply have to choose the linear option?

The NI Education Minister has, however, decided “to follow England” in strengthening the “emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar in certain subjects”.  From the same ministerial press release

In terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, the Minister added: “There will be a small number of additional marks (5%) available in English literature, geography, history and religious studies for spelling, punctuation and grammar. Criteria for assessing how these marks should be allocated will be made clear in guidance produced by the awarding bodies in consultation with the Qualification Regulators.”

The Minister concluded: “This is a good example of locally accountable government working in practice. We looked at what was happening in England and took the views of stakeholders here into account before deciding on the best way forward. The standard of GCSEs here and in England is exactly the same and it is vitally important that we ensure this continues to be the case and that learners can avail of higher education and employment opportunities across these islands.”

Still no word on the Welsh Government’s “wide ranging review of all qualifications for 14 to 19-year-olds in Wales”.