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Marking time

Teachers must wait for the first AS-level results before they can begin to judge how well the new assessment works, says Rachel Redford

How many of the teachers who posted their students' AS English folders to moderators last week were sure of the accuracy of their assessments? Last year teachers could be confident as they sent off their students' A-level work; but this year many are seriously worried. Was AO5ii as evident as it should have been? Will the moderator notice that AO3 was not really covered? It is hardly surprising they feel like this.

During this crucial year of change, inter-board "development" brought to an end the moderator-consortium system. Instead of having the support of a known and trusted moderator, who moderated their students' work, held annual consortium meetings and was always on the end of the phone, teachers now have an annual meeting held by an anonymous adviser who does not see their students' work. This year's meetings were held by advisers who had to explain and excuse imperfectly drafted assessment objectives that at best overlapped, and at worst should not have got as far as first proof.

What teachers wanted to know more than anything else - and were not told - was how to assess AS coursework completed by students who have barely emerged from GCSE. But no useful, genuine exemplar material could be provided because no cohort of students had yet been through the course; assessment had therefore to be left to teachers' skill and experience.

For conscientious, careful English teachers anxious to be fair and accurate, this has been a frustrating and unhappy time. So who does know how to assess this first cohort? As you read this, AS moderators, many newly appointed and with a single day's training, are assessing your assessments of your students' work. You have to hope they are accurate.

And what about the exams? This year, of course, there are legacy A-level exams as well as the new AS to be marked. Apprpriately qualified examiners are in such scant supply, that at least one awarding body is offering present examiners pound;200 if they can cajole any of their overworked colleagues into signing up. Next year, the first round of A2 exams will replace the old syllabuses... perhaps by then the bribe will be pound;300?

However, as English teachers struggle with these overlapping old and new syllabuses, they will be relieved to learn that the changes to GCSE have been postponed for another year, until 2002. Teaching the new syllabuses to Year 10 was to have started this September for the first examination in 2003. Punch-drunk English teachers will undoubtedly welcome the breather.

When they do come, what sort of changes will there be? Much was made in the newspapers earlier this year about dropping Shakespeare from GCSE English. But remember when English was English Language, before the misguided idea that every 16-year-old should have a compulsory dunk in "Literary Heritage"? When you did not have to teach Macbeth (or extract Banquo's Diary as a piece of coursework from those who were not there when you played the video)? Or explain Porphyria's Lover to adolescents still struggling with their own language and who would be much better served by basic writing skills?

The proposal was to return the pre-20th century "heritage", including The Bard, to English Literature, where it belongs. I think teachers, especially those in colleges trying to get through the syllabus in one year, would welcome such a move, which would free up some time for language work.

Another area that could be addressed is the pre-release material offered by awarding bodies. Examiners are well aware that students' annotation on the material brought in with them to the exam makes questions set on it a poor test of candidates' skills. This seems to be an opportunity to re-think it.

Rachel Redford is a moderator for GCSE and A-level and principal examiner for GCSE English

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