Northern Ireland

GCSE: Exam targets for children from poorer families are not being met

GCSE exam room
Image caption Last month's GCSE results showed that pupils in Northern Ireland had shown improvements in English, Maths and Science.

Department of Education officials have admitted they are far from meeting targets on GCSE exams.

The Programme for Government aims to have 49% of children from poorer families getting five good GCSEs by next year.

The latest figure is only 34%.

Permanent Secretary Paul Sweeney said he made no apology for the ambitious target and said he was not expecting a sharp increase in the percentages before the deadline of 2015.

He said it was a very serious matter that more than half of children entitled to free school meals would leave school without five good GCSEs.

He said the department was not complacent and was using a variety of schemes to improve performance.

Last month's GCSE results showed that pupils in Northern Ireland had shown improvements in English, maths and science.

Those gaining A* to C grades in English rose from 68.8% to 73%, maths rose 1.6% to 66.2% and science from 61.5% to 64.8%.

Overall, the number of pupils achieving A* to C grades increased by 1.5% to 78%.

While more boys achieved A* to C grades than last year, girls continued to outperform them by 7.6%.

Northern Ireland boards test pupils in sections or modules.

Old-style O levels and, from 1986, GCSEs were offered as linear exams, with a single test at the end of two years study.

In 2009, modular style exams were introduced in GCSEs across the curriculum.

They split the course of study into sections or "modules" and each one is tested throughout the two years.

A previous education secretary for England, Michael Gove, decided to change that.

He used two arguments: he wanted to reduce the amount of testing pupils had to cope with and he also thought the linear exam would be more "robust".

In Northern Ireland, Education Minister John O'Dowd decided not to follow suit and the exams offered by the CCEA, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, have retained the option of modular exams.

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