THE announcement by the Education Minister of the cancellation of all GCSE, AS and A-Level exams in Northern Ireland on Wednesday has been described as “soul-destroying” by a local principal.

Mark Henry, Principal of St. Michael’s College, Enniskillen, said students had put in the work for months in preparation for exams which were scheduled for next week, only to find out they have been cancelled less than a week before they were due to sit them.

“All of our Year 12s were entered for GCSE Maths and English, to take place on Monday and Tuesday of next week,” said Mr. Henry.

“They had been working very diligently up to Christmas, and over Christmas with the support of teachers for those exams.

“I understand why they are pulled, but the timing of this – for these children to have devoted so much time and energy into preparing for them, and to find out four or five days before they are due to take place [that they are cancelled] – it’s soul-destroying for them and it is very, very stressful for them.”

In a statement to the Covid-19 Committee in Stormont on Wednesday, Education Minister Peter Weir said that his priority was to ensure that, if possible, exams go ahead. “My overriding aim, however, is to ensure that our students are not disadvantaged in terms of their qualifications, compared with learners in other jurisdiction, and takes account of the rapidly changing context in which our schools and pupils are having to operate.

“We must also provide equity between students completing exams under different examination boards from different jurisdictions.”

Minister Weir said that they are preparing for all eventualities and that plans are ready to be “activated” in relation to the 2021 examination series, should they be required.

However, he added that with remote learning in place for six weeks, exams cannot continue as planned, and he announced the cancellation of GCSE, AS and A-Level exams in January, February, May and June, and added “work will continue on the alternative awarding arrangements, and further details will be brought forward as soon as possible”.

With the announcement of the exams’ cancellations, Mr. Henry said that schools do not know what the next step is in awarding grades for the students.

He said: “We have concrete information, in that they are cancelled. What we don’t have is what system or format or procedure is going to be used to provide GCSE and A-Level grades at the end of this year.

“While that information is not available to us, there will be extreme anxiety and very understandable anxiety among our pupils, parents and teachers.”

In November, Mr. Henry had called on mitigations for student assessments, for such moves to be put in place and not left until the last minute.

“Here we are in a void again where exams have been pulled at the last minute, in view of the January exams. We, as teachers, have absolutely no idea of how we are going to arrive at GCSE, AS and A-Level grades in June.”

However, Mr. Henry said he would have “significant concerns” around whatever processes are put in place to arrive at grades for students, given the experience of what happened last year with grading.

Mr. Henry, who has a son and daughter in Years 12 and 11 respectively, added: “As a parent and as a principal, I’m frustrated, I’m anxious and I’m incredibly disappointed in how this thing has been handled.”

From today (Thursday), the students of St. Michael’s will start remote learning, and Mr. Henry admits that with no exams for years 11-14, and how they will be graded, he says they will continue to be taught until they find out what the alternative is to exams in May and June.