Stress of spoonfeeding

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Staff are buckling under the pressure of the great exam-results rat race, writes Derek Fisher

And so the annual farce that is the gathering of coursework will soon draw inevitably to a close, leaving teachers weary and anxiously awaiting news of the moderation sample.

When GCSE replaced the old O-levelCSE system, I welcomed the move to incorporate some elements of coursework into the new exam. I recognised that it was unfair to base assessment of learning solely on a two-hour examination after two years of study.

I believed, and still do, that the inclusion of a coursework element would encourage greater independence among students in their study, greater ownership of their work and wider possibilities for them to explore creatively new areas of the syllabus. This was, and still is, certainly true of the GCSE sociology syllabus we study.

However, it may be that coursework has outlived its usefulness. The latest hijacking of the rules seems to be the result of the ever-burgeoning internet where, I am reliably informed, a student can find all kinds of assistance to the point where whole studies and essays are available to be downloaded in a trice.

While this presents a near-impossible issue to police, there are other areas that surely throw up even more worrying trends. When league tables were introduced, in what was presented as a move towards greater openness and equality of opportunity, I remember concluding with fellow teachers that the result would be some polarisation into good schools and bad schools.

What we could not have foreseen was the effect this would eventually have on teachers and coursework. Now, every year we suffer the great exam-result analysis by computer. It pits school against school, department against department and teacher against teacher. Link the whole thing with performance management and you've got the perfect recipe for increased teacher pressure and, in some cases, breakdown.

The other largely unmentioned factor is the effect that competitive schooling and performance management has on exam coursework. Until the past few years, I'd not noticed how stressed teachers became about it. I talk to younger teachers and I hear their anxiety, their desperation for their students to do well.

I hear of third- and fourth-year teachers, very competent, well respected practitioners, so worried that they are going to give up responsibility points if the results are not good this year.

So, what is the obvious temptation, to make sure you get through the next round of performance management and get the respect of colleagues and students? Do some, or a lot, of it for them.

Why are people surprised that this happens? It has been going on for years: people cracking the code of how to get better results, trying to find a more sympathetic exam board, getting inside information, and so on.

But now I feel we've moved on another stage. You hear stories of teachers "simply helping to finish off" a piece and dictating the last bit for them.

Or the teacher who'd entered a student for an exam but had since stopped coming to school. Well, the teacher reasoned, the student had done most of the work himself so it seemed all right to finish it off in case his grade plummeted.

What about the teachers who make the students draft and redraft until, presumably, they've eliminated most of the obvious errors and inconsistencies? We all know some teachers set deadlines and then allow defaulters to extend them.

I've seen desperate teachers spending hours after school with their classes in an effort to get the grades up. I've heard of a teacher who had to be told several times to stop finishing someone's coursework for him on the computer.

We all know of tales from school when the kindly teacherexaminer was able to assist them in their language orals without affecting the tape. There's nothing new about it, but perhaps it's becoming more widespread as we move inexorably into a "results are everything" culture.

It is hard to believe that the production of league tables has assisted teachers in their day-to-day work. For some it has undoubtedly contributed to increased pressure and more difficulty in doing the job.

Never mind the extra time and effort required in exam preparation. If you're a teacher worth his or her salt, you must join the great exam-results rat race. And if that means offering ever more revision sessions, revision guides and 24-hour helplines, or even cooking the coursework books, then so be it.

I love teaching, and have been fortunate to have had many good years in results terms. I believe that once I've taught the two-year GCSE syllabus it's up to the students to take responsibility and do the rest for themselves. Yet, I feel increasingly uneasy, because the pressures on teachers are now such that not everyone is so scrupulous. Are my students losing out?

Derek Fisher is the pseudonym of a head of sociology at a comprehensive in the south of England

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