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Off course in search of coursework inspiration

THE day began searching among the university departments and four-star hotels that is Bloomsbury. On the corner of Russell Square, I recognised another information and communications technology lecturer, by his crumpled map. We combined forces with little effect, proving that two teachers trying to read a map are not better than one. Our destination, a concrete and glass block and recent addition to the university, was eventually chanced upon behind the School for Oriental and African Studies.

The room of lecturers wore expressions that ranged from bemused to hostile.

I wondered which of us would be the first to admit we had not understood, or the first to voice revolt. The lecturer beside me had been to a previous event which had descended into a heckling match.

Would our speaker get the rough ride Jeremy Paxman gave Tony Blair the night before? As it turned out the only intemperate moment was when one teacher censured another, an offish public-school type who felt the need either to reinforce whatever was said or discuss loudly each point with his embarrassed colleague. Our speaker for the day was a principal moderator and his role was simply to tell us where we were going wrong in our attempts to teach GCSEICT. Put another way, how we should be interpreting the criteria for the course we all taught.

Examples of accurate marking were invariably accompanied by amusing asides about so and so in the South-east who has done such and such. Some laughed, some looked a little anxious. Retrospective amendments and re-marking was on a lot of minds. We were made aware that the presentation was available on CD but that it was not an official product and that any errors should not be blamed on the examining board.

This was just one of many maverick indicators. When one teacher told of how he had received written approval to carry out his coursework in a way that the principal moderator was uneasy with, he enquired as to the name of this exam board official. The teacher's uneasy response was met with upwardly rolled eyes and a firm rebuff.

Past exam papers received equal contempt; some of the questions were frankly rubbish, the moderator said, with a nothing-to-do-with-me disclaimer. The new exam involved a multiple-choice element. These, we were told, had been painstakingly written and no more would be done, so we could expect the same questions every year.

Each element of coursework criteria was covered with plenty of note-taking going on. We were learning to comply, although the scope of interpretation meant that the audience never seemed comfortable with what they were writing down. Perhaps this was because they had already got it wrong and wished they had made it to Bloomsbury a year earlier when the new course had been launched.

The truth was that the coursework was all but complete and the new style exam loomed ahead. The moderator hinted that the previous year he had received coursework (following the old course) marked with the new criteria and this year he half expected new coursework still being marked with the old criteria.

Chaos was not a stranger to him or his 21 colleagues who had gathered for a long weekend in a warehouse in Mansfield to moderate 30,000 scripts the previous summer. He pleaded for a reduction in paper and the total ban of plastic sleeves. Pro-forma mark sheets must be on top of coursework. There seemed to be a tacit threat. Annoy us and we'll go through your coursework like a United Nations inspector in Iraq.

Lunch brought some respite and plenty of conversation about the difficulties we had interpreting the criteria and, notably, how our pupils had expressed themselves. You might be mistaken into thinking that GCSEICT is a practical course. It is far from it and has a substantial written element. It seems we have a nation of children who can put things into computers but not into words.

I was left with the impression that the quest for standardisation across a nation of schools was a difficult one. I was certainly a little clearer about the criteria but when confronted with chaotically written coursework that only barely touched on the level of analysis implied by the principal moderator, where do you find the marks?

Parting was hasty. Teachers like to be at the helm, not rowing to another's drum. A few hung around to ask additional questions. As I left, I asked one if she was any clearer. A little, she said. But when I do get it, they'll just change it all again.

As for me, I kept thinking about the moderation process. The principal moderator had made a plea for more of his kind. An application form for the job has been included with the day's pack. What is 30,000 divided by 22? I decide to leave the form behind and took the moderator's message back to the front line.

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