Beware the draft excluders: killing off coursework is robbing pupils of the chance to develop honing instincts

3rd June 2011 at 01:00

Once upon a time, in the dim mists of the '70s and '80s, students were allowed to enter first English O-level and CSE examinations, then 16+ and finally GCSEs based entirely on coursework.

All this came to a juddering halt in 1991 when the then prime minister, John Major, said, in an after dinner speech, that pupils were not allowed to do any more than 40 per cent of their work at their own pace and leisure. Most of their qualifications had to be done under timed conditions in the examination hall.

This marked the beginning of an admittedly rather long end for course-based assessment. For there has recently been yet another twist in the tale of this protracted saga. As of this year, the regulations for coursework changed again. Students could no longer do coursework in their own time but had instead to do something called controlled conditions.

Controlled-conditions pieces were meant to be like coursework, only they had to be done in the classroom (pieces could no longer be taken home). Pupils were meant to write their answers to a particular question, which they had prepared in the weeks before, in the lessons assigned for completing the task. They were allowed to take in plans of what they intended to write but not drafts of previous versions.

The idea was that the lessons would be like mini exams. The teacher acted more like an invigilator during the lessons than a teacher. Exam boards stipulated, in English at least, how long could be spent on doing the assignment. A controlled conditions piece could be up to three, sometimes even four, hours long.

The main reason for introducing entirely class-based assessment was to prevent students - and it has to be said teachers, too - from cheating. The fear was that pupils simply downloaded stuff from the internet and passed it off as their own.

Of course, there are numerous software devices used at university that can check whether something has been substantially copied, but they are not, for some reason, considered at school level, though I am sure that schools would have been happy to do so.

Another reason was that it was felt that parents had too big a hand in producing beautifully polished pieces of coursework. In some cases, newspapers in particular complained, mummy or daddy did the work almost completely. Of course, teachers said this was not the case. English teachers, for example, said that they could tell the difference between something that had been written by Emma or Sanjay and something produced by their parents or a friend. Again English teachers' protestations were ignored.

Finally, it was felt that teachers played too big a part in producing the final piece of work. Pupils were allowed to produce numerous drafts of an assignment before it was deemed ready to hand in. During this time it was felt that students did not so much draft their work as it was proof-read and improved by teachers until it was of a good-enough grade. And this proved the final stumbling block for course-based assessment. Drafts were no longer allowed. Although students could have a go at the assignment before they had their controlled conditions exam, no drafts were allowed in.

This fundamentally changes the way English is taught. Drafting is a process that goes on outside the four walls of the classroom all the time. In writing this article, for example, you will not be reading a first draft of what I think.

I might show what I have written to someone else to get their views on what I have said and so alter it. It goes on at university level, too. If this were an academic article it would be sent to at least two external readers who would comment on the piece I had written - peer review.

With coursework this happened frequently. Pupils could write a piece which could then be peer-assessed by their colleagues. This was useful both to the peer-assessor and the one whose work was being read. Reading someone else's piece would often remind the student of something they could have said, too. Being assessed would give a pupil other avenues they could explore. A pupil could then redraft the piece again and so improve it.

And this is surely what we want. We do not want the first attempts of a student at writing an essay. We want their considered and well thought-through opinions. Certainly there is the chance to plan an essay, but robbing them of the chance to redraft seems going a step too far.

Of course there are other things which are wrong with the controlled-conditions exams. For one thing it takes up valuable lesson time, and it certainly badly affects those students who hate writing in exams. I know of one head of English who is concerned about some of her pupils who do not do nearly as well with a controlled assignment as they would have done with the leisure of coursework. They go to pieces because they know it is a timed test.

English teachers are a versatile bunch and they are making the best that they can of this new set of conditions. Controlled conditions tests, for example, prepare pupils better for what they will face in the ultimate exam in the summer.

But ask teachers whether they think ultimately it is a good idea and they will smile wryly. This small salvage of at least classroom-based work could, ultimately, go too.

Dr Bethan Marshall is senior lecturer in English education at King's College London.

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