Assessed essays are now done on dull school production lines to rigid criteria. Neil King looks back on a freer, more inspiring era
Coursework has always been a wonderful opportunity, one currently wasted as every piece of assessed work becomes rigidly controlled so that it can be compared with other exams and neatly audited by educational accountants.
I first encountered coursework in the mid-1970s under the benevolent (we would perhaps nowadays say "lax") eye of the old Oxford amp; Cambridge Schools examination board.
At O-level English, individual schools set their own coursework and examination papers, subject to scrutiny and advice from other members of a consortium. At A-level, one out of three papers was coursework, and schools again proposed areas of study and a list of tasks for the course, which were approved by a panel of senior examiners.
This empowering way of working, scrapped in the 1990s, allowed teachers to create a course that delivered breadth rather than depth, and where a strong foundation was laid that could be built upon for in-depth study and final external examination at the end of the second year of a course.
During that first year, students wrote about 18 coursework essays. I never let them know how much actually "counted", motivating them by saying: "Only about the best four or five count," (almost true), "but the moderators have the right to call for the whole folder (fanciful)".
Inappropriate tasks were sometimes set, but teachers and students learnt much through devising projects. This system also saw pupils get the grades they deserved - or at the very least, the grades were no less appropriate than now, with a system regulated to death and students re-taking modules as many times as they like (what a disastrous climb-down).
The old courses were vastly broader than the present ones which, in English literature, sometimes require knowledge of just one text.
Last autumn, when our A-level coursework was returned, I was dismayed by the moderator's reference to our "rather ambitious attempt to cover two novels". Oh dear.
A recent survey among the membership of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, conducted by its deputy general secretary, Gwen Evans, revealed that members thought learners were being "cowed by coursework which led to production-line methods rather than independent learning".
In 2002, a letter of mine was published in The Times in which I supported coursework as part of English examinations in argument against a chemistry teacher who wished to see the end of coursework in his subject.
There are problems with coursework: even I have developed more reservations as I have had to set increasingly arcane essay titles to prevent students cribbing from the internet. Many also argue that it is unfair to poor pupils because middle-class parents help their children more.
There are also concerns about marking load. But regular work must be written and marked anyway, whatever the system. The problem with current coursework is the time teachers spend meeting overly complex assessment objectives, often losing a commonsense overview in the process. Different subjects have different needs and different kinds of coursework - or none at all - will be appropriate.
One way forward may be to get away from the notion that coursework must be "equivalent" to external examinations, and get back to the original idea of it being excitingly different.
To compensate for the loss of education time which AS examinations have caused in Year 12, perhaps we could turn the lower sixth into an all-coursework year, not equivalent or counting towards other examinations.
This would be complementary and genuinely foundational, a year of breadth rather than depth, developing skills (including the skilful use of the internet) rather than knowledge.
At the end of the year, moderators would receive material they would simply accredit as evidence of a good grounding.
This would be a welcome embrace of the Tomlinson idea of giving credit for doing many things, as well as achieving highly while doing so.
A year of coursework would bring us closer to the International Baccalaureate in which students must spend 240 hours doing creative work, activities and community service. It would be inspired by John Ruskin's belief that everybody ought to draw, no matter how badly, so that they would be forced to look closely at the world.
Neil King is director of sixth-form at Hymers college, Hull