Timely injection

New criteria, new outlook for coursework, says Chris Culpin

The new criteria for GCSE history require syllabuses to include 25 per cent British history. Modern world syllabuses seem likely to try to meet this by introducing a course on Britain in the 20th century, assessed through coursework. So, by September 2001, we shall see wholesale scrapping of existing assignments in these syllabuses, with teachers and exam boards devising new ones. What an opportunity for injecting GCSE with topics that can motivate and inspire. Local history, oral history (were they the best years of your life?), retrospections (why and how do we remember the dead?), analysis of museum representations - these offer a real chance for something intrinsically worthwhile in examination history.

It is all too easy to be cynical about coursework. "The mums do it all, don't they?" as a former secretary of state for education was heard to remark. Those working on improving boys' achievement report that they can find coursework uncongenial. For teachers, it is a major marking chore. Not surprisingly, more and more teachers are choosing "off-the-peg" coursework assignments designed by their exam board, rather than working out their own. There are also new tensions involved in marking. Teachers have to be aware of GCSE league tables and the contribution their department is targeted to make to the school's position. The new "threshold" in teachers salary arrangements winds up the tension another notch. If teachers have to show that students have measurably improved as a result of their teaching, then there are both school and personal pressures on their integrity. Evidence suggests that teachers have resisted this pressure and are more expert and reliable markers now. Nevertheless, the number of schools and candidates asking for re-marks in the autumn has increased, indicating that the impact on the assessment system is being intensified.

There is also the issue of re-drafting. Boards seem unclear on whether candidates should be allowed to re-draft assignments in history. Wherethey are clear, the "one-shot" rule seems to apply. Students are allowed to re-draft in most other subjects. Trying to enforce this rule looks like one more way in which the subject is seen as being harder than others.

None of this should diminish the real value of coursework. While we grumble about it, let us not forget how awful against-the-clock written examinations are. For many candidates it is a demoralising experience, in which they are rarely able to show what they can do. When GCSE was introduced in 1987 the rationale for coursework was that it should be types of study, and forms of assessment, that were not appropriate for written examinations. These excellent aims have been rather lost, particularly when coursework was reduced in 1996.

This year it has again been my privilege, as a moderator, to see some fascinating school-set assignments. I have read discussion of where the Romans landed in 43AD, followed the history of Alexandra Palace, seen how you can build up a picture of a town in medieval times by relating the evidence from the church to the written documentary sources, and learned a lot from an analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union. These are not "projects", by which I mean flabby, unfocused "find out all you can about ..." tasks. Such project work creates hours of assiduous, but pointless, cutting and pasting, helped by mum's visit to the library or dad's camerawork. For at least a couple of decades now, good history teachers have been setting coursework that is focused on a problem, a hypothesis, or a puzzle to unravel. The result is coursework that is not over-long, is too deeply-rooted in five years of history-teaching for mum to be able to offer any advice, and which may well be the highlight of Year 11.

Coursework or individual assignments are worth 30 per cent of the new AAS levels; it is a real opportunity for best practice at GCSE to be carried forward.

Chris Culpin is director of the Schools History Project and a chief coursework moderator for Edexcel; the views expressed here are his own

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