Give usa break, Santa

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
The wrapping looks good, but assessment reform has handed the English coursework lobby a dull pair of socks, says Alastair West. Now is the time of year for those last-minute hints to Santa Claus and others as to what would prove really welcome. Secondary English teachers in particular have every reason to be anxious about what they might find in their Christmas stockings. What they will be looking for is clear enough: a significantly increased proportion of coursework assessment in the new criteria for GCSE syllabuses that are soon to be announced. But what kind of surprise are teachers going to be in for?

Following the consultation on the draft criteria for GCSE English and English Literature, members of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority met recently to frame their recommendations to Education Secretary Gillian Shephard, who will announce her decision in January. Below stairs, or up in the nursery, we do not know what the SCAA recommendations comprise. We must remain content with unconfirmed press reports of the difficulty members had in reaching agreement. As is customary with such exercises, the consultation report, the recommendations and the decision will all, persumably, appear simultaneously. So the Secretary of State is likely to be deciding the draft criteria while the rest of us are sorting out the mince pies.

The messages delivered over the past three years to Santa's grotto could hardly have been clearer, more numerous or more consistent. Ever since July 1991, when the Prime Minister announced the curtailment of coursework assessment to a maximum of 40 per cent, English teachers have sought its restoration. Throughout the confused introduction of hastily designed syllabuses that comply with this stricture, they have argued the superiority of coursework assessment. Reflections on the first results from the new syllabuses have done nothing to persuade them otherwise. The Save English Coursework campaign organised by Mike Lloyd reveals an extraordinary consensus among teachers from more than 90 per cent of all types of maintained and independent secondary schools in favour of a significant increase of coursework.

There has been no shortage of arguments or evidence to support this position. Perhaps the most important argument concerns fitness for purpose: the mode of assessment employed should be appropriate to the assessment objective. So far as English is concerned, all pupils, particularly the more able, need the space provided by coursework assessment adequately to demonstrate their achievement across a range of activities. In the new draft criteria, the assessment objectives are based sensibly upon the generous, wide-ranging provision of the new draft English Order. However, the proposed mode of assessment - 60 per cent terminal examination - is quite incapable of meeting these assessment objectives, many of which clearly require a range of work exemplifying pupils' competence in order to make any kind of judgment.

As to the supposed unreliability of coursework assessment, Terry Furlong demonstrated long ago quite how insubstantial is the evidence adduced to support these claims. Of course, instances of irregularity occur - cheating, unwarranted parental or teacher support, or the unreliability of teachers' judgment - but well-tried moderation procedures have been developed over decades to overcome them. Moreover, the low frequency of such instances must be set alongside the far greater unreliability that occurs with assessment by terminal examination. The second point is that the recent increased numbers of A-level English candidates and the even more startling rise in standards is largely due to methods associated with coursework-based GCSE. How many other assessment initiatives can demonstrate their effectiveness in this way?

A further point relates to consistency. The proposed maximum of 40 per cent of coursework assessment is inconsistent both with the weighting given to teacher assessment at other key stages and with the current assessment arrangements for General National Vocational Qualifications. Does Sir Ron Dearing endorse teachers' professional judgment only as far as key stage 3? Meanwhile, as NATE's nationwide survey reported, teachers live with the malign effects of reduced coursework, a widespread decline in pupil motivation and a narrowing of the English curriculum.

All this will no doubt have been forcefully said in consultation responses. However, the omens for change appear mixed. Recently, teachers have been encouraged that their views on the English curriculum have at last begun to be understood and acknowledged. The draft English Order published last month contains significant changes in the areas of standard English, prescribed lists, early literacy, media, information technology, drama, bilingualism and language across the curriculum. Primary teachers have been reassured by the easing of assessment pressures in key stages 1 and 2. The prospect of calm is held up tantalisingly. Nicholas Tate, chief executive of SCAA, said recently on this page that "the flexibility offered by the revised arrangements, together with the commitment to a five-year period of stability, should usher in a period when a thousand curriculum flowers (of the same genus) can begin to bloom" (TES, December 2). If only . . .

But to achieve this, someone will have to usher out the period in which a thousand GCSE appeals have blighted the English curriculum bloom. Teachers' response to the draft English Order would be very much more positive but for their deep scepticism as to the reliability of the 1994 results. There is an unprecedented number of appeals, many still outstanding, and there are schools where pupils' better-than-expected results remain inexplicable to their teachers. We know about the inadequacies of timed exams that led to the introduction of coursework. Do we really have to live through the experience again?

Moreover, the welcome changes made to the draft Order will count for nothing unless and until the assessment is appropriate. GCSE syllabuses dominated by terminal examinations will limit the classroom possibilities afforded by the draft Order and do little to raise standards. Teachers remain apprehensive about the familiar pattern established early in national curriculum legislation whereby any concession on the curriculum is countered by later retrenchment on assessment. The coursework decision is the litmus test as to whether or not the Dearing review really has brought to an end the period of confusion occasioned by extremist right-wing intervention in education.

As with Christmas presents which are incomplete or inappropriate, or simply do not work, there is a peculiar bitterness to the disappointment of reform that is anticipated but denied. The glimpse of things that might have been; possibilities snatched away; unfulfilled expectations. It is also, more deeply and most bitterly, the sense that any real understanding of the recipient by the donor has broken down. If there is to be any substance in the promise of a five-year period of renewal, let alone any prospect of achieving the ambitious National Education and Training Targets, there needs to be a decision to increase the proportion of coursework assessment to at least the 60 per cent which has been argued for.

The alternative is grim indeed. Nick Tate concluded his Platform article: "The coming of a revised national curriculum marks the beginning of a new era. I hope it marks the beginning of a lively debate about the curriculum both in its own right as as part of a much-needed national debate about culture, society and identity." I hope so, too, for Dr Tate identifies what lies at the heart of most English teachers' concerns. We certainly need that debate. It would be tragic, however, if one of the first points to be made about our culture and society is that a distrust of teachers and a tolerance of the inadequate assessment of our pupils remains endemic.

Dr Alastair West is vice-chairman of the National Association of Teachers of English.

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