More than 26,000 students across the region received their AS and A-level examination results on Thursday morning, with the number of A* and A grades awarded falling for the second year in a row.
Students from Lagan College and Campbell College in Belfast had varying levels of nerves approaching results day, but were all eagerly looking ahead as they discussed plans for further study, in Northern Ireland and beyond.
Mirran Morrison, Cohen Taylor, Caoimhe McClure and Chris Cassells, all students of the integrated Lagan College, got the results they needed to be accepted to their desired University courses.
Head girl of Lagan College Mirran Morrison achieved three A* grades in religion, sociology and drama.
When asked if she was nervous in the run-up to getting her results on Thursday morning Ms Morrison said: “Oh my gosh, yes. I didn’t sleep for like three nights.”
Ms Morrison, who was accepted to study theology at the University of Durham, said she tried not to think about the discussion around the decrease in A/A* grades that would be granted this year.
This year in A-levels, 11.6% of pupils across Northern Ireland achieved an A* grade (down from 14.5% last year) and 37.5% achieved an A* or A grade (down from 44% last year).
“I was going to be nervous regardless. So I tried to kind of just block everything else out and just go with what happens so I’m absolutely gobsmacked,” Ms Morrison said.
Cohen Taylor said he was “very happy” with his results of two A*s and an A.
He added that the exam board’s recognition of the impact of Covid was helpful, despite the decrease in top grades over the year.
“Obviously the grades were still up from 2019, and I think that that was really important because whenever I saw the headline this morning, I did panic a little bit, and then I read the article and it was like, they’re still going to help and recognise the effects of Covid and I think that that was really important,” he said.
Mr Taylor has been accepted to study social policy with sociology at Ulster University, and said he chose to pursue his further study in Northern Ireland to help improve things in the region.
“I think going to an integrated school I am very conscious about what this place is, but I also spent a lot of time thinking about how we can make it better,” he said.
“And I suppose I wanted to do a course in a place where I’d be able to be a part of trying to make this place better rather than just throwing the hands up and saying I can’t change anything and leaving.”
Caoimhe McClure was emotional when she opened her results and got her confirmation of her place at Queen’s University Belfast to study English and drama.
Ms McClure said that her friends in the year group had all got the results they needed, despite CCEA scaling back on top grades.
“It did, like putting that out, did make us feel really nervous for them and stressed us out a bit. But everyone I’ve talked to has done exactly how they wanted and better so I’m really proud of everyone,” she said.
Like most other students getting their results today, Ms McClure experienced significant disruption in her previous exams as a result of Covid-19.
“My A2s were my first go,” she said.
“My GCSEs were disrupted and kind of my AS (levels) as well, so this is the first time I’ve done any proper exams and it was the most important ones.”
Head boy at Lagan College, Chris Cassells got 3 A*s and one A and will be going to the University of Cambridge to study geography after taking a gap year, which he described as “really surreal”.
Despite aiming for and achieving top grades, Mr Cassells said on results day he was safe in the knowledge that he’d done all he could do in exam season.
“I think I was just a bit nervous about my own abilities, doubting myself, but I was happy enough knowing that it’s going to be fair. Whatever I get, I know I’d done my best.
He added: “Whatever I achieve, that’s what was meant to happen.”
Amanda McNamee, principal of Lagan College, said she was “delighted” for their 2023 class, and that they had managed a turbulent time in education due to Covid restrictions.
“There was uncertainty as you would expect going through the Covid pandemic years, there’s been a lot of change management. But our youngsters rose to the challenge,” she said.
Ms McNamee said despite the large numbers of students that leave Northern Ireland every year, a majority were still choosing courses at home.
“A majority of our youngsters are still heading towards Queens and University of Ulster, which is, which is really heartwarming,” she said.
“And there’s some really exciting courses being offered at home universities and obviously the fees help to keep our young people at home, but equally it’s also nice for youngsters who want to fly the nest and to go off to different countries and pursue study over there.
“What I like to see as a principal is that those young people then return, and they return to make Northern Ireland a stronger, more peaceful, more successful place to have as a home.”
Success stories were also shared at that all-boys school Campbell College.
Twin brothers Angus and Aaron Pollock collectively achieved 6 A*/A grades, with both being accepted to the University of Ulster.
“I was really impressed by the Ulster campus because it was only built recently, and I just think it’s easier settling into the course if you know everything kind of about in the area,” Angus said.
Aaron Pollock added: “I was also really impressed with the campus tours and open days, but I’m also considering doing a placement year somewhere in Europe.”
Asked if there was any sibling rivalry when the results came in, Angus Pollock said: “I don’t think so, I think we’re quite supportive of each other and we both knew that we’d do well.”
“I do want to beat him, but I also want him to do well. It’s a bit of a balance,” Aaron said.
Headmaster of Campbell College Robert Robinson said he was “delighted” with the results.
“The boys are showing really good resilience.
“It’s been a hard journey for them for the last few years. And so we’re really, really pleased. We can see that clearly in terms of the outputs of where they’re going to go to university.
“We’ve seen more staying at home this year than in the past couple of years, about 40% of them are either going to Queens or Ulster, and then they’re off to English and Scottish universities in the main, with around 9% of them going to Durham University.”
Most of the A-levels sat in Northern Ireland were from local exam board CCEA, with some students and schools opting for other UK boards.
Examiners were also told to be mindful of disruption caused by the pandemic when considering overall student performance.