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Leona O'Neill: Education Minister Peter Weir has an unenviable choice to make

Given that there are other options open to Education Minister Peter Weir, Leona O'Neill asks, is putting our young people through formal exams next year really fair?

Education Minister Peter Weir pictured during a visit to St Columbanus College in Bangor earlier this month

NONE of us has a crystal ball when it comes to what next year is going to look like. We can all but hope that come Easter, and a year in with this dreaded virus, things will start to finally normalise. Vaccines will be available and working. Our society can get back to what it once was and life can go on. We all have our fingers crossed.

I'm acutely aware that this has been a terribly stressful time for us all. Everyone has their own challenges to face – be that on the job front, seeing their business just disappear, dealing with the trauma on the front line of this epidemic, or shielding at home for a year and living with anxiety over catching a virus that could potentially kill you. We all have our coronavirus stories.

I have children at school. One of my boys is in his GCSE year. Through no fault of his own, and no fault of the school, no fault of anyone apart from this damn virus, he has had a hugely disruptive and challenging year. The last part of his fourth year at school was basically a write-off, and this year for him and thousands of pupils across Northern Ireland and further afield is a stop-and-start affair, with self-isolations, teachers off sick and online learning.

Everyone is doing their very best in the most challenging of situations – not least the teachers, principals and staff at the schools helping kids navigate through this time – but I wonder if putting our young people through formal A-level and GCSE exams next year when every brick wall and obstacle has seemingly been put up against them is fair on them.

The education minister for Wales, Kirsty Williams, recently announced that Welsh school pupils will not take their GCSE and A-level exams in 2021. Instead, externally set and marked classroom assessments, which can be taken within a broad window of time, will be used to grade students.

Head teachers would work on a 'national approach' to ensure consistency, she said. Assessments will be done under teacher supervision, and will begin in the second half of the spring term.

They will be externally set and marked but delivered within the classroom.

She said that although she remains optimistic that the public health situation will improve, the primary reason for the decision was down to fairness. She rightly states that the time learners will spend in schools and colleges will vary hugely.

I'm not an expert in education, by any stretch of the imagination, but I do see the stress the situation is causing our young people. Many of them, who are extremely conscientious about their work, their grades and their future, are concerned about whether the disruption will impact their ability to fulfil their potential and get the grades they need to move on to the next stage of their educational journey.

And we should not disregard their fears. When you're 16, 17 and 18 years old and you have your life's ambition and aspirations carefully worked out, your trajectory planned, any barrier to that dream can feel like the end of the world.

Our education minister has a dilemma in front of him. If he goes down the predicted-grade route and announces it now, students might switch off and take their foot off the accelerator pedal, which might be just as damaging as doing nothing. If he takes Wales's route, there might be some push-back from people who feel they are just exams by stealth.

What we have to ensure is an even playing field. Some of our kids have been lucky with regard to self-isolation and time off school, others have been at home more than in class.

Teachers, who are doing a heroic job, are ensuring those in the classroom and at home are being taught well. Everyone involved, from the top to the bottom, has had a hugely challenging year.

I wish Peter Weir all the very best going forward. I don't envy his task.

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