Trust staff to stay the course

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Teachers always had doubts about coursework. In a survey nearly 20 years ago, when it became a standard part of the new GCSE exam, they told a national newspaper that it was a gift to middle-class children whose parents would help them towards top grades. Similar worries have led Ken Boston, head of the exams watchdog, to tell The TES this week that he wants coursework phased out in many subjects within four years. How can teachers be sure that parents have not helped with a project? (A recent survey found that 63 per cent did.) How do they decide when they have overstepped the line between legitimate support and cheating? (See the debates in The TES online staffroom forum.) And how do they deal with the internet, which presents opportunities for plagiarism of which the founders of GCSE and A-level never dreamed?

Coursework has benefits. It motivates some pupils. It tests different skills from exams and it prepares young people for the world of work, where a good performance is required every week, not just once a year. But the extent of public mistrust of its reliability increases by the year. Add to that the burden on pupils and teachers of drafting and redrafting work, and the need for a new approach is clear.

A return to a system where end-of-course exams determine pupils' grades in most subjects, which Dr Boston seems to envisage, is not the answer. The case for assessing pupils throughout the year is a strong one but it should be done by teachers in the course of normal lessons and homework, not through the special assignments and projects which constitute coursework.

Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector, proposed that chartered examiners, externally-accredited experienced teachers, working in their own schools, should have the job of grading pupils' work throughout the course.

Their marking could be moderated and their assessment would form a percentage of the final grade. The proposal foundered on ministers'

reluctance to trust teachers. They should. Otherwise, we shall end up with an exam system better fitted to the 19th century than the 21st.

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