In a spectacular act of circus somersaulting, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has announced plans to fire coursework from the canon in many subjects by 2010. Confused? Chief executive Ken Boston's explanation could come straight from a fortune-teller's booth: "In many areas of the curriculum, coursework is the only and best way to assess. In others, it is not." Although Cryptic Ken is hazier than Mystic Meg on detail, a visit to the TES website's Staffroom reveals teachers' reactions:
"Thank the angels! Drivel and copying is coming to an end!" (Frederick5) Many argue coursework is a tough act to follow. Others see it as a white elephant, fattened on stress and plagiarism and floundering in its own tent of paperwork. The debate is contentious, but skips blithely over deeper issues, such as concerns about educational policies, the limited role that teachers play within them, and the shamefully low level of trust that this government has in teachers. Surely the opportunity to conduct original research over a longer time hones students' research and time management skills? "Ha! Boo! Hiss!" cries the TES audience. For every diligent student there are those who are late with their work, who plagiarise, who re-submit unaltered essays, or "don't do grammer" (sic).
They don't do much, really, other than gradually reduce their chances and their teachers' lifespans. Covering GCSE English coursework is a strong man's workload. English teachers deliver two separately graded GCSE subjects within the same hours that others have for one. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... the Exceptional English Teacher! Tremble as he shoulders a language weighting of 40 per cent. Quake as he holds aloft a 30 per cent literature burden. And, for his next trick, watch as he tames the lions of literature coursework. See him devour... Shakespeare. Modern play.
Novel. Poems. Marvel at how similar this fantastic feat is to what he does all over again for the actual exam, which is... (drum roll) worth more than twice the marks.
Yes, many students do benefit from coursework, but too many also need spoonfeeding. If exams took precedence over coursework, some students would perfect the elusive skill of writing original, well argued essays, something boys excel at. Exams for all might at least play to their strengths and redress the gender performance gap. And isn't learning how to write well under timed conditions a vital life skill?
It's easy to spend a disproportionate amount of time on coursework compared with the higher-weighted exam papers. By the final term, we English teachers are closeted coursework curmudgeons.
Finally, there's the issue of trust. If the QCA is serious about change, it must trust us to help. Teachers could sit for externally accredited qualifications, enabling them to assess and grade students in the way that exam board moderators do nationally. This would reassure and empower teachers without overburdening them. Students would maintain focus, knowing that homework "counted" towards their grades. Some subjects must rely on coursework and always will. But one shoe size does not fit all. Send in the QCA clowns!
Margaret Fraser works in a secondary school in west London. She writes under a pseudonym