Let's get back on course;Talkback

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Coursework is the most effective measure of achievement in English literature, argues Kevin Fitzsimons

David Blunkett and Tony Blair are sincerely committed to a co-operative approach on education policy. One of the simplest yet most strikingly effective ways of showing that commitment would be to reinstate the 100 per cent coursework option for English literature in time for the millennium. Nothing caused so much anger and disillusionment among English teachers as the last government's ill-informed and arrogant decision to cut coursework and impose a final examination.

The reductio ad absurdum of coursework to 30 per cent meant that all the work remained but the effect was marginalised. Is it fair, or even sensible, to give so little credit to pupils for so much effort? They might still be asked to study and write assignments on Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, An Inspector Calls, Pygmalion, She Stoops to Conquer, Twelfth Night and Macbeth, Porphyria's Lover and My Last Duchess, as well as prepare for examination a selection of poetry, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Roll of Thunder and Of Mice and Men!

Removing control of the assessment process from teachers who had designed, marked and moderated coursework implied they were neither sufficiently competent nor trustworthy enough to have that responsibility. With a single, simple gesture, New Labour could signal a return to trust and regard for teachers.

Experience and not a little wisdom were the bases on which a successful system of moderating coursework had been built. Every folder of work from each candidate was seen and assessed by at least two teachers from the participating school. Half of all folders were scrutinised by an external moderator and often by hisher partner as well. The work of all As, Cs and borderline candidates was discussed and carefully weighed. Assistant chief moderators were often consulted in cases of difficulty or disagreement. Samples of all moderators' gradings were scrutinised by the chief moderators.

We thought we had a foolproof system, but we had reckoned without the politicians.

The arguments in favour of a final exam in English literature hardly bear - dare I say it - examination. The supposed benefits of testing memory and the ability to think clearly under pressure are minor - and perhaps better tested in other subjects - when set against the restrictions imposed by a 40-minute answer, or the boredom and long-term destruction of interest in reading and theatre caused by line-by-line study of Shakespeare or Dickens.

The proliferation of dictated notes, model answers and publishers' aids is the only clearly identifiable outcome of this system. The questions set are either so predictable that differentiation is virtually precluded, or so arcane as to be whimsical. The choice of texts makes no allowance for personal taste - pupils' or teachers' - nor for local influence, such as studying Philip Larkin's poetry in Humberside, or Laurie Lee's prose in Gloucestershire. This is not "rigour", it is rigidity.

In direct contrast to this manacled approach is the flexibility and freedom offered by coursework. To see the disciplined creativity of outstanding teachers given room to experiment and develop, then to share expertise through a series of standardising and moderation meetings, is worth any amount of "organised" in-service training.

Standards are set by agreement not imposition, and are the stronger for that. Assignments take into account the age, ability and interests of the pupils, who are encouraged to join the teacher in the process of experiment and exploration, and for that to happen mistakes are allowable. In the end - if there is ever an end in literature - it is not what you know but how you learned it that counts.

So what argument is used to justify the sidelining of coursework? That pupils, parents and teachers would find it too easy to cheat. Apart from the reality - which was that it was very difficult to cheat given the effectiveness of the checks - it was a profoundly insulting slur on teachers whose dedication is to their pupils, not to making life easier for themselves.

Any examination list must be exclusive, no matter how honestly or conscientiously designed. Regardless of the preparation for the exam hall, there will be numerous miscarriages of justice through illness, misinterpretation or misunderstanding.

As for the supposed "rigour" of external marking, any examiner will tell you about burning the midnight oil in order to meet a deadline and be rid of nameless, faceless candidates' scripts.

What a contrast to the teachers who take infinite care to see that justice is done for the people they have been teaching for at least two, and sometimes five, years. Let's go back to the future and ask new Labour to return to the ancien regime.

Kevin Fitzsimons is head of English at a Hull school Coursework is the most effective measure of achievement in English literature, argues Kevin Fitzsimons

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