Stories to remember;Talkback;Opinion

10th September 1999 at 01:00
Returning marked GCSE papers to school may be dangerous, warns Richard Watson.

On the night of my mother's conviction, all I could think about was Mum sleeping in a cold, dirty prison cell without a single person known to her.

This is not how my Mum should be living was my main thought. She is not an animal in a cage. She is the mother of three children who is very loving but is just not very good at choosing her men.

This is the ending of one of the hundreds of essays I marked for GCSE this summer. There were scores in a similar vein, dealing with personal grief and loss.

A few stand out, such as the 15-year-old girl who wrote an A* essay about her first holiday love affair which led to pregnancy and a termination.

Another, again by a girl, told of how her drug-addicted brother had torn her family apart. Then there was the essay from a young man about his mother's alcoholism and the break-up of his family. Another confessional essay was written by a boy who had been a criminal, "bricking cars" from motorway bridges, burning council property and stealing.

Another told of how a mother had stabbed to death her drunken partner. The death of a grandparent was frequently described. I read no essays from Muslim girls about their fears of arranged marriages, but colleagues said they'd marked several. All raised human rights issues.

English examiners are familiar with this kind of closely-felt, personal writing. It comes at all levels and is written not to shock, but to express deeply-felt experiences to an anonymous reader. For the first time this year, some GCSE papers will be returned to schools; next year all will go back. Some young people will be appalled at their personal confessions being available for others to read.

The rules about accessibility are clear - essays are only to be read in school by the candidate under the supervision of a teacher, and all work is confidential.

However, it is in the nature of things that stories will leak out. Friends will read each other's work and, in some cases, slip papers into bags and pockets, because staff won't be ableto supervise the perusal of papers. It happened in the days of 100 per cent coursework where confidentiality was not an issue, and it is likely to happen again.

While examiners and examination boards need to be accountable as they are at key stage 3, there will be several predictable repercussions as a result of allowing personal essays to go back to school.

The first is that candidates will resist writing about what they know. Second, it is possible that a handful of candidates in some 11-18 schools will be victimised by teachers they have criticised.

One solution is that essays be written in separate booklets retained by the examination board and only made available in case of an appeal. This would decrease the likelihood of sensitive essays finding their way into the public domain.

As things stand, what appears to be a good "open policy" of making examiners and examination boards "accountable" and increasing "freedom of information" will have unforeseen and damaging results.

Richard Watson is an English teacher and GCSE English examiner.

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