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Coursework under fire

There's too much of it at GCSE and A-level, says former chief inspector. Warwick Mansell reports

MUCH GCSE and A-level coursework is unnecessary, the man leading the Government's inquiry into the future of post-14 education has said.

Mike Tomlinson, head of the 18-month investigation into 14-19 education, said that students were needlessly being assessed for essentially the same skills through coursework in many different subjects.

His views emerged at a 14-19 conference at which the former chief inspector gave the clearest hint yet of latest thinking about the makeup of a possible baccalaureate system for England.

Mr Tomlinson said: "A student taking GCSEs, AS or A-levels may well be doing coursework in most if not all of the subjects they are studying. The content may differ, but the skills it is intended to test are often the same across subjects.

"They do not need to do it to the extent they are doing it at the moment."

He said later: "I'm not sure that the coursework element really tells the examiner very much, or even the teacher very much."

Mr Tomlinson suggested that in future students might have to do a cross-curricular project which would form the coursework element of an overarching qualification such as the baccalaureate.

Mr Tomlinson's task force on the bac has been meeting since March but it will not publish interim findings until July. The final report is expected in summer 2004.

Most changes will not be implemented in the next five years. However, he gave the conference, organised by the AQA exam board, indications of its thinking in several areas.

He said that there should be less assessment. But he stressed that this did not mean that teacher assessment should replace externally-assessed exams.

"That's a little like shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic," he said.

He described the arguments for an English baccalaureate as "quite persuasive". The envisaged qualification would have four levels - advanced, intermediate, foundation and possibly entry level. This structure mind find a place for "non-examined elements", in which students would get recognition for, for example, community service, or extra-curricular drama or music.

There might be a "common core" of subjects which all students would study, and these could include skills which were valued by employers, such as the ability to work in teams.

The bac would need to be challenging for every student, so some elements could be at a higher standard than that found at A-level.

Finally, Mr Tomlinson said that there would have to be a reduction in the number of ways in which schools are held to account for their performance.

The former chief inspector has already suggested that league tables should cover groups of schools, rather than single institutions. He said that ministers should cut down on the number of inspections of schools and colleges.


COURSEWORK was introduced as a major requirement of school-based qualifications with the GCSE in 1988. For some courses, students did not have to sit any conventional time-limited exams.

Shortly after he became prime minister in 1990, John Major returned to a more traditional approach, limiting coursework to no more than 20 per cent of any GCSE or A-level.

Students now do coursework for AS-levels and A-levels. Many teachers and parents value coursework, but others complain it has increased their work and say that the system can be abused by schools desperate to improve results.

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