Out of proportion

Ann Barnes calls for politicians to look again at the balance of weighting given to coursework for pupils at key stage 4. It's new syllabus time again for GCSE examiners. Across the country people are spending worrying weekends, in exam board offices or motorway hotels, trying to work out how to squeeze the new version of the English curriculum into the particular assessment system set up for pupils to show what they know and can do.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the new Order is the emphasis on range in both reading and writing. During key stages 3 and 4 pupils are required not only to read but also to produce evidence of work for assessment - either in the exam or coursework - of "a range of forms from the English literary heritage to include prose, poetry and drama". This must include work by at least one author published before 1900, a play by Shakespeare and work by at least one 20th-century author "with a well-established critical reputation". The work displayed must also include non-fiction, media and texts from other cultures and traditions.

Pupils must show they can write in an extensive range of forms: they must explore, imagine, entertain, inform, explain, describe, argue, persuade, instruct, analyse, review and comment. Fine. But how much better they might show all of these skills through the leisure of extended tasks rather than the scramble of the timed test.

Many English teachers now accept that tests have a place in assessment. What they cannot understand is the refusal of some senior politicians to look again at the balance of coursework against externally marked exams in the light of what they are requiring pupils to demonstrate.

We know the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority recommended that the proportions be altered for the 1998 syllabuses. We have heard Sir Ron Dearing say he thinks externally assessed tests should be balanced by an equal proportion of teacher assessment. We have heard rumours that top people at the Department for Education have been impressed by the logic of what the English teachers are saying but we are led to believe that the big "No" comes direct from the top.

In this situation we can only continue to spell out the arguments for more coursework recently made by the National Association for the Teaching of English at a meeting with Eric Forth, the Minister of State at the DFE. Coursework enables pupils to understand tasks which are contextualised and can be matched to a pupil's particular abilities and interests; to cope with tasks that require continuing demand; to sustain and develop a complex reading or writing task over time; to develop or change a piece of work in the light of reflection and to show a full repertoire of language competencies in reading and writing. These skills cannot be assessed through a timed exam.

It has been said that boys do better in exams and girls better in coursework. Last year's GCSE results show this is not so. Girls seem to do better in tests and in coursework. And while often the most able pupils are disadvantaged by timed exams, weaker candidates are often better motivated by the demands of coursework than practising for exams.

An externally assessed exam is a hit-and-miss affair, as research by Professor Paul Black and others has shown. Well-moderated coursework is far more likely to give teachers, pupils, parents and even politicians reliable information.

It would be possible in, say, a year's time to adjust proportions of weighting without having to change the new syllabuses already being constructed. We have got used to changes going backwards and forwards. Let's go forward now.

Ann Barnes is general secretary of NATE.

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