The end of coursework

or…What’s assessment for anyway? 

When I took my GCSEs in English and English Literature (in 1991) they were 100% coursework. I wasn’t alone; according to the 2006 Review of GCSE Coursework from QCA (found here) about two-thirds of 16 year olds in the early 1990s were taking GCSE English through syllabuses that had no examinations. Much has changed since then, and all 16 year olds who take GCSE English in summer 2017 will do so following syllabuses with 100% terminal examinations (as announced by Ofqual).

A mindset change

Coursework has been part of my Key Stage 4 experience as a student, trainee, teacher, Head of Department and Senior Leader. Its removal requires a complete shift of mindset. Curriculum design, long and medium term planning in English has always been about fitting the coursework (or latterly controlled assessment tasks) into the two years to form a coherent programme of study around the assessment tasks. No longer. At this point in time, this feels like a blessed relief from the millstone of controlled assessments, and an opportunity to open up curriculum time to learning, but it will feel very different.

A change of gear is needed

A change of gear is needed

It will also require a mindset change for students. I have felt uncomfortable for some time about the prevalent attitude of “will it count towards my GCSE?” amongst students I teach. The unfortunate truth at the moment is that if it does, most will really try and put in every effort. If it’s “just practice” or, heaven forbid, an assignment merely to develop or secure understanding, it doesn’t get the full focus of a “proper assessment”. I will be glad to see the back of this distinction as it will allow and require a full focus on the process of learning in every piece of work throughout the course.

Teacher assessment is best

I genuinely believe that teachers are best placed to make accurate and complete assessments of their students’ abilities. It seems almost ridiculous that I have to state that at all. Teachers spend every lesson with their students and know better than anyone the full range of their achievements within the subject, in much more detail than any examination can hope to discover, no matter how long or rigorous. This will be lost in the terminal exam system. Teacher assessment (in English especially) has snapped under the weight of the accountability framework’s focus upon it. This was recognised in the QCA GCSE_coursework report:

5.44: The environment for GCSE and A levels has changed. Twenty years ago there were no achievement and attainment tables (formerly performance tables), no national or local targets related to examination grades and no link between teachers’ pay and students’ results. The environment now is far more pressured and in these circumstances, it is likely that internal assessment of GCSE and A levels as presently practised has become a less valid form of assessment.

Teacher assessment + high stakes accountability = a powder keg

Teacher assessment + high stakes accountability = a powder keg

This is undoubtedly the case. Teacher assessment is still the best way of assessing student progress and learning (although, as David Didau asserts, measuring learning is a horrifically complex business). It should still be the basis of teaching and learning in the classroom but only if the sole purpose of that teacher assessment is to measure the child’s progress and identify next steps in learning. If the teacher assessment is also serving the purpose of proving progress to senior leaders and external inspectors in order to maintain the school’s standing in performance tables and the teacher’s own salary, then of course there are vested interests at play which will encourage even the most professional professional to err on the side of generosity. And this is how we’ve arrived at our current situation. The accountability and pay systems have rendered the most accurate and helpful form of assessment unreliable and corrupt. Excellent work, policy makers.

Moving forward

I have several tasks as a school leader now to make the most of this new assessment framework.

Jumping through hoops - a necessary evil?

Jumping through hoops – a necessary evil?

  1. To help subject teams re-think curriculum design away from the coursework/controlled assessment structures that have been in place for so long. We will have a lot to learn from Maths and other 100% examined subjects here; we will need to make the most of the time freed up from controlled assessments to teach curriculum content (which is a combination of knowledge and skills, of course).
  2. To decouple teacher assessment from external accountability and pay progression as far as possible, to allow it to be carried out accurately for the benefit of the student’s learning, parents, and teachers themselves to inform planning.
  3. To work with all teachers and students to jump the hoops of the new terminal exams. I hate this part of the job, but recognise that teaching exam technique is vital to success in exams. I will also make every effort to keep this in proportion to the real business of teaching the actual subjects.
  4. To continue to do my best to construct a Key Stage 4 curriculum in the best interests of the learners at my school.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

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3 thoughts on “The end of coursework

  1. Good luck Chris. Bizarre to think that my own children will have to sit end of course English exams the same as those that I sat way back in the days of O Level. Back to the future I guess.

  2. Thanks for this, Chris.

    I’ve said elsewhere that teaching the 100% coursework Dual Certification course in English/English Lit was the best experience I had as an English teacher. I was Head of Department at the time. I also acted as a moderator, and we spent a week at the end of the summer term at Manchester University moderating a sample from each centre to ensure standards of assessment were reliable. I had confidence in the course, in teachers’ judgements, and in the fact that it helped pupils to fulfil their potential (and was an INTERESTING course to teach/study). I was teaching some very bright girls at the time (girls’ school) and remember reading some stunning stuff – well worthy of publication.

    I felt we’d come such a long way from my own school days of narrow O level courses assessed only by terminal exam – especially in a subject like English which required real creativity and not regurgitation of what had been learnt. And it was great to be able to assess their listening and speaking skills too – so relevant to what they were going to have to do in their professional lives.

    I look at where we are now and it makes me very thoughtful….

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