CCEA Principals’ Conference 2019

The 2019 Principals’ Conference took place in January 2019 at Lagan Valley Island Conference Centre in Lisburn. Principals, from post primary schools across Northern Ireland, were presented with insightful discussion from a panel of respected educationalists from:- Edinburgh University; Durham University; Oxford University; Queen’s University Belfast; DENI; Cambridge Assessment; Wallace High School and Ashfield Boys’ High School.  Areas covered were:

  • An overview and qualifications insight report - Summer 2018;
  • Changes to GCSE Grading;
  • Qualifications reform - the challenges and opportunities; and
  • The NI Curriculum, Assessment and Digital Skills.

CCEA would like to extend our thanks to our panel of speakers, for openly discussing their perspective on the above topics and to our Principals who attended the conference.

Speakers’ Presentations

Presentations from the conference can be accessed below.

Alison Matthews, Oxford University - NI teacher conference presentation
3.9 MB uploaded 29-03-19

Belfast - 29th January 2019 (Tim Oates)
8.5 MB uploaded 29-03-19

Deborah O'Hare Technology at Wallace
886.8 KB uploaded 29-03-19

Faustina Graham, DENI -NI Policy Forum
349.2 KB uploaded 29-03-19

Margaret Farragher
347 KB uploaded 29-03-19

Philip Hanna, Queen's University - Making the Transition
8.5 MB uploaded 29-03-19

Roger McCune, CCEA Regulation
426.8 KB uploaded 29-03-19

Ruth Kennedy
751.8 KB uploaded 29-03-19

Applications to 3rd Level - Q&A Session

The audience posed a number of questions to the panellists from higher education providers on a range of topics.  After the conference, CCEA approached UCAS for clarification and the answers can be assessed below.

Q: For high-demand degree courses, are applicants studying four A-levels at an advantage over those who only study three?

In general, students taking A levels are admitted to higher education on the basis of their ‘best three’ results, with some exceptions (e.g. where subject specific requirements need to be met). Much like the AS level, it is acknowledged that not all students will have access to a fourth A level subject, and therefore applicants should not be advantaged or disadvantaged by taking or not taking a fourth A level from an admissions perspective.

A fourth A level and/or an AS level is still likely to have value for progression to higher education, including where the AS has been decoupled, because it:

  • allows for additional breadth of study 
  • provides externally validated information as part of the application
  • provides a useful milestone of progress 
  • can potentially provide a motivational stepping stone for some students.

However, due to the differing patterns of provision, higher education providers have sought to remove any dependency they may have previously had on AS qualifications. This means applicants won’t be advantaged or disadvantaged by taking or not taking the AS.

Q: While the AS level qualification has been de-coupled from the A-level in England, this is not the case in Northern Ireland. Are applicants’ AS grades considered by universities when going through the application process?

The decoupling of the AS in England has led to a number of schools and colleges asking how it is used in higher education admissions. Universities and colleges are autonomous in the way they value qualifications, and practices vary. The AS has been previously used:

  • as part of their holistic assessment of an applicant
  • as an external validation of predicted grades
  • only if an applicant has not met the terms of their offer
  • if they require a fourth AS, to meet their standard entry requirements

Many higher education providers have published qualification reform statements detailing how their admissions practices may have changed as a result of qualification reform. You can view these at

Q: A great deal of time is spent by schools supporting applicants with their personal statements and writing their references. What is the significance of each in the application process?

UCAS requires all achieved qualifications to be listed in the application, and this forms part of the applicant declaration.

The reference is designed to give universities and colleges an informed academic assessment of an applicant’s suitability to study. Teachers and advisers are encouraged to include:

  • Information on academic performance and potential 
  • Suitability, motivation and commitment towards the chosen course, programme or subject area
  • Any contextual information or mitigating factors which may warrant special consideration or which may have impacted performance
  • Any information that is not covered by other areas of the application form.

UCAS provides a range of information and advice for teachers and advisers, including toolkits and help with submitting the application and providing a reference, on the adviser pages of

The personal statement enables students to outline their interests, skills and experience and explain how these would be relevant to the course they want to study. This commonly includes academic and work experience, extra-curricular interests and hobbies, personal circumstances, and appropriate, transferable skills. It also encourages applicants to consider and articulate what they want to study and why, and allows students to give more context about their studies if they wish to do so, such as obstacles or difficulties they have overcome, or any mitigating circumstances or disruption.

The personal statement is also used to provide important contextual information about an applicant; providers are offered a deeper, more holistic picture of the student beyond exam grades. This, alongside the reference, can help them make a more informed judgement about whether the student is suited to the course and/or provider and supports contextualised admissions practices.

Both the reference and the personal statement can be important factors in the admissions process, particularly with regards to mitigating circumstances and when considering suitably qualified applicants at confirmation.

The above statements are broadly speaking, and individual provider practices may vary. We would encourage all applicants (and teachers/advisers) to contact their choice of providers if they have any queries or concerns over any aspect relating to admissions policies and processes.

Additional Note
CCEA also works closely with the Irish Universities Association (IUA) which represents the seven universities in the Republic of Ireland. If you similar questions you would like CCEA to put to IUA representatives, please email Michael McAuley at CCEA: [ ]