'Why we shouldn't mourn the loss of controlled assessment this GCSE results day'

Controlled assessment presented an unpleasant ethical challenge to all teachers and left a whiff of immorality around our profession

John Blake

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There are many and varied examples of the assessment jargon that litters education. The system assesses so often that conjuring new names for the manner and form of it is an art, requiring not only teachers but also parents and students to use them ad nauseum.

One such is “controlled assessment”: that contribution to the final qualification outcome made not by an examination, but by some form of project work, completed under the supervision of the class teacher, who also then marks it.

Controlled assessment is so named because it is not coursework, which could be taken home. Instead, it must be done in class time.

The latitude given to teachers in controlled assessment is substantial and the opportunities to nudge the results of some, most or indeed all of the children in the desired direction is ever-present. Perhaps through sharing the specific question too early, or inappropriately editing a student’s work.

Even if an individual teacher has the moral fibre to resist that temptation, senior management might take a different view and subtly – or perhaps bluntly – highlight ways in which the constraints of the rubric can be pushed against and, in some cases, pushed through.

It is a hard truth to acknowledge that cheating – or the hardly better euphemism “gaming” – is a problem in teaching. In 2016 there were 388 penalties for all forms of cheating, including controlled assessment infractions, issued to school and college staff, an increase from 262 in 2015 and 119 in 2014.

The Tes forums are filled with people who suspect it and several who are open that they have seen it happening in their own school and do not know what to do about it. Innocent teachers and students were the victims of this behaviour.

In 2010, the coalition government more-or-less resolved this problem for teachers by announcing the almost total abolition of controlled assessment from the reformed GCSEs. This week, the results of the first of those GCSEs – English language, English literature and mathematics – will be published.

Given that both the content and the construction of the exams is deliberately designed to make them harder, it is likely schools will see some decline in the quality of their results.

Students should be spared problems arising from this by the decision to align the new Grade 4 with the bottom of the old C-grade, so much the same number as got passing grades last year will get them this year, too. Schools, who are to be judged on the number of Grade 5 students receive, may feel more aggrieved.

Almost certainly, some will seek to blame the abolition of controlled assessment in English as one of the reasons for the changes in outcomes. They will probably be right, because controlled assessment is habitually marked more positively than terminal examinations, but no teacher should mourn the loss of controlled assessment.

As well as being enormous amounts of work to teach, invigilate and mark, it presented an unpleasant ethical challenge to all teachers and left a whiff of immorality around our profession that we are well rid of.

John Blake is head of education and social reform at the think-tank Policy Exchange, before which he was a state-school history teacher for 10 years.

Keep up to date with all the latest GCSE news, views and analysis on our GCSE hub. 

Find out what colleagues are chatting about in your discipline by visiting the subject based forums in the Tes Community or you can join in the conversation about GCSE results day.

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John Blake

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