From 1994: on coursework and exams

TES.JPGJim Stewart and I wrote this for the TES in 1994, after the first round of new GCSE exams in English and English Literature, replacing 100% coursework. I wouldn’t agree with everything in it now, or with all of the expression, but – as comes across – we were a very angry profession at the time. I’m posting it here as a piece of educational archaeology!

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Interestingly, the stripped-down, heritage-heavy, almost IT- and media-free proposals for English have reached the teaching profession and the media at precisely the same time as an earlier government initiative on the teaching of English, the abolition of 100% coursework, has reached fruition. Is it the intention that English teachers will be so busy concerning themselves with the latest manifestation of the permanent revolution that now seems to be our lot, that we will have no time to assess the results of this previous, and even more far-reaching, intervention in established good practice?

Year Eleven pupils have just completed the new, low-coursework, English and English Literature GCSEs. It is as clear now as it has been for two and a half years that the value of coursework is of no interest whatsoever to the government. The overwhelming force of professional opinion in favour of the retention of a majority of coursework, an opinion sustained and consistently expressed since the arbitrary limits on coursework assessment were imposed, continues to be resolutely ignored.

What are we to make of this? Presumably, the government is well-informed about the relative merits of assessment by coursework and assessment by exams, and has neglected to share what it knows. As the first cohort of pupils has finished the course and completed the exams, it seems a good time for reflection on what has been achieved, and what has been lost, by such a fundamental change. After all, the futures of these sixteen year olds are determined by the results of these exams, and particularly of exams in English. Beside this, even the proposals for what pupils do at Key Stage 3 take on a different perspective.

Presumably, then, the first new-model GCSE English and Literature exams were an educational triumph. Presumably they were carefully designed to fulfil the complex and many-layered task of assessing the language development, over two years, of pupils of a wide range of ability. Presumably, they somehow allowed time for reflection, reworking of ideas, and redrafting, and were therefore able to put candidates at their ease. Well, actually, no, they weren’t, and didn’t. No examination can fulfil all of this, least of all one which has been sporadically redesigned by examining boards not able to guess where the next government whim might lead, and who had already been under the pressure of having had to redesign, republish and redistribute their syllabuses several months after teachers had begun to teach to them.

Experience of teaching to the 1994 model GCSE, after seven years of 100% coursework, has been predictably demoralising.  For those of us who have been in the profession long enough, it has also been strangely familiar. The worst aspects of teaching to GCE and CSE have been resurrected: we had hoped that they had been laid firmly to rest in 1986.

For pupils, though, this is much more than a matter of our professional disquiet; they have only one chance. It has been disturbing to see the frustration of pupils, and the limitations on their work, caused by having to prepare for exams never previously seen or sat by anyone. It has been disturbing to see pupils reduced to tears through worry over an impending exam, and hard to convince them of its worth when we have very little faith in it ourselves. As a means of assessing two years’ work, four to six hours’ examination in English can scarcely be anything other than a lottery, and pupils know it.

It has been depressing to watch pupils, aware of the weight that the exams carry, struggling to show their work at its best.  At the end of five years developing their writing through discussion, editing and careful crafting, pupils are asked to sit down and engage with largely meaningless, contextless tasks with just an hour of tense silence for each. And, as exams approach, the culture of the classroom itself changes: preparing for them, pupils are constructed not as writers, but as candidates. They are manifestly frustrated spending hours in exam practice, producing writing with which they are dissatisfied because they have been denied the opportunity to work as all writers work, and as they have been working since primary school.

Examinations have acted as a powerful demotivator; some pupils who, in the supportive ethos of a course assessed by coursework would have attained a qualification, have been so put off by the prospect of and the preparation for examinations that they have given up altogether.

For teachers and pupils, there has been the anxiety and confusion caused by enforced segregation of candidates into upper and lower tiers on the basis of ill-defined criteria, something which the experience of the last seven years has shown to be entirely unnecessary, and which has been destructive of pupils’ self-esteem.

At the end of August, what will the exam results in English look like? Will they, perhaps, be equal to, or even better than, last year’s? If so, this will have little to do with what the exams have enabled pupils to show they can do, but will simply be because standards cannot be seen to have fallen under the new dispensation. A session of heavy statistical massage could well be on the way, completing the journey back to pre-GCSE days by replacing criterion referencing with norm referencing.

The subtle, complex instrument of assessment by coursework has been replaced by a crude lottery, which cannot assess pupils’ achievement with anything approaching the same degree of accuracy or reliability. This has been done in the face of sustained professional protest, with no attempt at consultation. What value, then, can English teachers place upon the current declared interest in our opinion? How far will our views be heeded in helping to shape the curriculum that we will be expected to teach?

Two and a half years ago, 86% of secondary English teachers in our authority signed a letter to the then Secretary of State for Education, closely arguing the case for retaining coursework. Eventually, we received a standard reply from a junior minister, which addressed none of the specific points made in our letter, but merely repeated tired, predictable rhetoric. It was hard to believe that our views had even been heard. The experience of fighting for coursework suggests that, once the government’s agenda is set, professional opinion counts for nothing.

Jim Stewart and James Durran teach English in Huntingdon. They wrote this piece in an hour, without any collaboration, in silence, and without a dictionary.

2 thoughts on “From 1994: on coursework and exams

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  1. What puzzles me, James, is why teachers aren’t uniting in protest about this. No other profession tolerates such a high level of interference from government; I suspect no other profession has a lower number of MPs who have any actual experience of it. I expect they all think they’re education experts because they went to school.

    When their interference is this harmful, and the continual changes in themselves harmful even before you assess how lame is the thinking behind them, why isn’t the profession as a whole saying NO? Is it that the sheer process of continually changing methods uses up everyone’s energy? I am sure you would have the support of parents, who see as much as you do the harm that this pressure on children causes. Fight back!

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