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English staff deplore limits on coursework

English teachers are still convinced that GCSE coursework raises standards and provides the most accurate means of assessing students' performance.

A nationwide survey of 80 teachers by the National Association for the Teaching of English has revealed overwhelming opposition to the Government's stipulation that GCSE coursework must account for no more than 40 per cent of a candidate's marks. Teachers are also concerned about unnecessary exam-paper tiering (targeting papers at particular ability groups). They have further misgivings about an overcrowded, over-assessed reading curriculum in the new English and English literature syllabuses for first examination in 1998.

The survey also suggests that the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board has won the competition to produce the most popular GCSE courses: 75 per cent of the schools surveyed intend to enter pupils for the board's syllabuses in 1998, compared with 50 per cent in 1997.

A staggering 98 per cent of respondents believe that the coursework limitations will have a negative or very negative effect on teaching and learning. This statistic, which underlines the earlier research findings of the Save English Coursework campaign, is validated by the variety of the responding schools, which included small and large, urban and rural comprehensives, high schools, grammar and independent schools.

Teachers believe that 50-100 per cent coursework English syllabuses allowed them to promote important writing practices such as drafting and writing for real audiences, and gave them the flexibility to tailor reading programmes to pupils' individual needs. Moreover, when these syllabuses operated, the examination boards developed rigorous moderation and scrutiny systems to ensure the reliability of coursework-derived grades.

The next most significant survey findings concern tiering. More than three-quarters of respondents (78 per cent) believe that the division of papers into A-DC-G tiers will damage learning, with an even larger proportion (88 per cent) dissatisfied about new cut-off points for awards. The teachers fear a return to the divisive O-levelCSE system.

Teachers are equally unhappy about the requirement for nine categories of reading to be taught and assessed in English syllabuses, 76 per cent indicating that they believe this will damage learning. The assessment overload is seen as likely to result in a fragmented, shallow curriculum.

As a result of the overloading, while 58 per cent of the departments surveyed currently enter nearly all pupils for both English and English literature, 28 per cent expect to enter fewer candidates for literature, and 14 per cent expect to make more Foundation-tier, rather than Higher-tier, English entries in 1998.

The popularity of the NEAB courses is partly explained by the quality of the board's anthology of texts. But while a majority of departments (62 per cent) approve of such anthologies and other pre-released examination materials, some respondents expressed serious misgivings, believing that however imaginatively they are used, anthologies give pupils an artificial and limited experience of reading.

John Moss is the research officer of the National Association for the Teaching of English

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