Time to speak out on the spoken word

There is no place for spoken coursework in a fair GCSE examination, says Colin Butler. Endlessly altering examinations may now rival queuing as this country's national passion, but one principle has until recently remained constant, namely, that candidates' work must be independently checkable. You can see its justification. If work cannot be checked, marks based on it are inherently suspect. Moreover, candidates can scarcely mount an appeal if they have no work to point to.

Yet in GCSE English, a legally required foundation subject taken by some 500,000 candidates annually, one fifth of the mark now goes compulsorily to spoken coursework - that is, regular assessment over several terms of solo and interlocutory performances. Written English is permanent and can be scrutinised at any time by any authorised party. But spoken English is different. Once said, it is gone. All that remains is a mark and the teacher's say-so - mine included. Is that enough?

All GCSE examining procedures are ultimately safeguarded by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's GCSE Mandatory Code of Practice, compliance with which is required by Section 5 of the 1988 Education Reform Act. Paragraph 88 of the latest version reads: "For syllabuses in which a weighting of 20 per cent or more is allocated to assessments from which no written outcome or artefact arises, moderators must either visit centres while assessment is in progress or check audiotaped or videotaped samples of assessed work." That's all there is.

Mention audiotaping and Modern Languages is often invoked to defend it; yet the similarities are more apparent than real. While Modern Languages concentrates on the kinds of second-language proficiency that lend themselves to recording, spoken English emphasises inaudible paralinguistic phenomena such as gesture and facial expression. These would register on videotape, of course. But not all centres have the facilities or the know-how. Inequalities are inseparable from obligatory videotaping.

As for external moderation, all that is legally required is one visit of unspecified duration, with one teacher being seen assessing a selection of pupils of unspecified numerical proportion to the whole. The rest is inference. That is, remaining candidates (the vast majority) can have their marks changed on the basis of what has taken place between a teacher not their own, other candidates, and an external moderator they have never set eyes on. This cavalier procedure, it is claimed, can be validated statistically. But not every candidate will necessarily conform to such extrapolation; consequently, potential injustice is inbuilt.

I grant that all teachers are required to keep "evidence . . . sufficient to support their marking". But it does not have to be verbatim: it can be the briefest of notes. What kind of evidence is that?

In sum, one fifth of GCSE English marks falls within a part of the examination that is structurally defective, and one fifth is a lot when it comes to grade boundaries. Pupils and parents know this; and schools know it as they set about competing with their neighbours on the basis of published results. They all have a right to a safer examination. They will all also know that success in spoken English coursework depends more than somewhat on personality. I find it thoroughly unjust that transient shyness can cost candidates the grade that their intellect entitles them to.

It was Mr Patten who made spoken English coursework part of a unified qualification. His error needs rectifying. Exams should not require of individuals what cannot be individually checked, GCSE English should become a wholly written exam; and spoken English should be returned to those whose professional responsibility it is anyway - classroom teachers, who know their pupils case by case. In this matter Gillian Shephard has clean hands. Were she to use them decisively, she would serve well public confidence, GCSE examining standards and the interests of individual pupils, too.

Dr Colin Butler is senior English master of Borden Grammar School in Sittingbourne, Kent.

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