The Times They Are a Changing – New Grades and Ways to Cheat in NI Exams

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 3 September 2019
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

As Northern Ireland once again excels in this year’s A level and GCSE results, it is gratifying to see a realisation by the local examination authorities that our pupils must be able to compete on equal terms with their counterparts in England.  

The planned introduction of the C* grade at GCSE ensures that the grading scale here is now comparable to the new 1 – 9 number scale in England.  In 2013, the English government announced a reform to GCSEs and a new grading system comprising of numbers (9-1) rather than the letters (A*-G).  As a result, the Northern Ireland and Welsh governments reviewed their policy on grading.  At the time there was grave concern in our schools that the then education Minister John O Dowd and the Department of Education were insisting on local exam board CEA retaining the A* - G eight point scale, rather than aligning with the new nine point scale being introduced across the water. Failure to do so would have potentially disadvantaged pupils in Northern Ireland in university and employment application competition in the future.  Thankfully In June 2016, the new Minister for Education, Peter Weir MLA, requested the following changes to the grading of GCSEs offered by CEA:

“The A* grade will be realigned to reflect the level of achievement on the English 9-1 scale, and a new grade C* will be introduced to align with the level of achievement consistent with the grade 5 on the English 9-1 scale.”

The reality in examination results currency was that a C grade in GCSE English and Mathematics had long been the benchmark “pass” for entry into most employment and further education opportunities. The introduction of the nine point scale in England meant that there would not be an automatic read across from a C grade to the new 5 grade, which was predicted to be the new “pass” level. The current move to a nine-point scale in Northern Ireland with a new C* grade equivalent to a 5 on the numerical scale rectifies the situation.

Also, the fact that many pupils here sit GCSE examinations with English Examination Boards means that their list of results, while a mix of numbered grades and letter grades, will all be comparable and equivalent. CEA have also clarified the wider effect on the new scale;

The Grade 9 will be awarded to approximately 20% of the learners who achieve a Grade 7 or above. This will result in fewer learners achieving the new Grade 9 than the number who currently achieve an A*. In summer 2019, when the new letter grades are awarded, the A* will be adjusted to reflect the Grade 9. This will mean that proportionally fewer learners will achieved an A* from 2019. The introduction of the Grade C* will reduce the number of learners achieving a Grade B. The Grade B will align with the Grade 6 in the numeric scale. The new Letter and Numeric scales will introduce more grades at the higher end of the grading scale. This allows for greater differentiation among higher achieving students”.

These changes therefore will have a beneficial effect on examination results overall and will allow the outstanding performance of our schools and pupils to continue to be properly recognised at a national level as well as locally.

Along with the benefits of new phone technology have come fresh problems for schools regarding potential abuse of phones in examinations to look up information.  We have all become accustomed now to making quick reference to google when unsure of something and it is hardly surprising that this has created a new issue in examination settings.  New figures from CEA show the number of penalties issued for malpractice increased from 55 in 2014 to 115 in 2018 and in 2018, mobile phones accounted for more than a third of all incidents of this malpractice.

Schools now go to great lengths to warn pupils that they can be punished for malpractice simply by taking a phone into an exam, even if they do not actually use it and anyone caught cheating will see it impact on their results.  In 2018, of the 115 caught, 95 either lost marks or lost the aggregation or certification opportunities connected to the exams they were taking.

The availability of quick answers on phones is a huge temptation to students, especially given the pressure that many feel to achieve college entry and meet high parental expectation.  Some current examples of what is available to pupils on their phones are;

  • Free math apps such as Photomath which allow a student to take a picture of the math problem. The app then scans the problem and gives the answers, even for complex algebra problems.
  • Some apps, such as HWPic, even send a picture of the problem to an actual tutor, who offers a step-by-step solution to the problem.
  • Websites such as Cymayth and Wolfram Alpha solve math problems on the fly—Wolfram can even handle college-level math problems. While the sites and apps state they are designed to help students figure out how to do the math, they mean that the pupils do not actually learn how to solve a problem. Other apps quickly translate foreign languages. Rather than having to decipher what a recording says or translate written words, apps can easily translate the information for the student.

Of course, there are the more obvious cheating methods of texting another pupil during an exam or retrieving stored notes or pictures. Cheating in today’s world has evolved as technology has allowed cheating in a general sense to become all too common and easy. There are now issues for parents and schools to address with pupils around what is morally right and wrong in these matters as 35 percent of teens admit to using their smartphones to cheat on homework or tests, according to a Pew Research Center study. Sixty-five percent of the same surveyed students also stated they have seen others use their mobiles to cheat in school.

Not only does this all put a new level of pressure on exam supervisors but there are wider questions now confronting us all about the evolution of education and assessment of ability given these new technological realities.


If you found this article useful and you would like to recieve more education articles via email (two per month), please subscribe below:

Subscribe to our NI Schools mailing list


*indicates required
Marketing by
This article is correct at 03/09/2019

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email

View all articles by Frank Cassidy