Is coursework a fair way of assessing pupils?

16 May 2012
The Times and The Sunday Times

A version of this article appeared in the Times, Tuesday 8th May.

When a pupil of mine, Gerry, presented me with his English Language A level coursework, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was A* with knobs on! “Blimey, Gerry, how did you do that?” I asked, “Your last piece scarcely scraped a D grade.” Gerry, who was a bit of ‘wide-boy’, winked at me, “I re-booted my brain sir!” I had to admire the craftsmanship of the essay;  it wasn’t a ‘generic’ copy, the work was personalised and clearly had not been copied from the internet. Much later, I was to learn that it was the work of a personal tutor. There was no way I could prove plagiarism because the tutor had re-worded Gerry’s personal responses. Furthermore, knowing that it was technically a ‘legitimate’ piece of work, I was pleased that my results would be boosted — teachers’ career are on the line if they get bad results now.

It’s fairly obvious it’s the system that’s at fault. When you have very ‘high-stakes’ testing like we do in this country, pupils are bound to find ‘quick fixes’. So much is riding on the marks for both teacher and pupil. The former’s pay packet now depends, in part, upon their pupils’ performances in their GCSEs and A Levels, while the latter’s whole career and future can hinge upon a grade.

Coursework has always been a problem because unscrupulous students can so easily cheat. In my experience, most  egregious offenders now get caught; the ‘copy and paste’ jobs from the internet are always spotted. But coursework like Gerry’s can still get through, particularly if competitive parents get involved. I’ve come across parents who have written essays for their children because their child’s grades have been more important to them than their integrity.

The last government tried to stop the Gerrys of this world with the introduction of what is termed ‘Controlled Assessment’  (CA) at GCSE whereby all ‘coursework’ is done in the classroom under the supervision of the teacher; this doesn’t necessarily weed out the cheats because notes can brought into the exam. That said, these notes have to be brief and clearly the cheating has drastically dropped from previous years. However, unsupervised coursework still forms a major part of A Levels.

However, the current government is saying that it’s going to stop coursework entirely and have only end-of-course exams. While this may stop the cheating, it’s also unfair because the vast majority of students I’ve taught have benefited from doing coursework and haven’t been crooked. Perhaps we need a more continental system of assessment where presentations and speeches are factored in to the overall marks. I think this would make our courses more educative, more fun and fairer.


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