Schools return to exam culture

STEVE DOWNES Norfolk headteachers bemoaned a “backward step” last night as GCSE coursework was swept aside - signalling a return to the era of high-pressure exams.


Headteachers in East Anglia bemoaned a “backward step” last night as GCSE coursework was swept aside - signalling a return to the era of high-pressure exams.

Eighteen years after it was ushered in, as O-levels were abolished, traditional coursework will be axed in subjects including English literature, foreign languages, history and geography in a bid to stamp out cheating in schools.

It will be replaced by more external exams and controlled assessments carried out in classrooms, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) said.

Coursework will continue in art, music, design and technology, PE and home economics.

The move by the exams watchdog is designed to deal with the growing problem of pupils copying work from the internet or getting too much help with essays from their parents or teachers.

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But it has not been universally welcomed in Norfolk, where headteachers fear students will not be properly equipped for the world by focussing solely on exams.

Ian Clayton, headteacher at Thorpe St Andrew High, near Norwich, said: “I think it's a backward step - back to the days when it was all about whether you could sit in the exam hall and produce the goods in half an hour.

“There are issues of whether coursework is being monitored properly and not copied. But coursework tests a completely different range of skills, including research and presentation skills.

“If we think about the skills students need in the world, we are moving away from a knowledge-based curriculum. What youngsters need is a range of skills of analysis, research and presentation. Those skills are drawn out through coursework.”

Philip May, head of Costessey High, said: “I think it's dreadful news. Exams only measure a limited range of skills.”

He added: “As long as some of the coursework is done in the classroom so you have something to measure, I think it is easy to tell when work has been taken from the internet. Fraudulence is pretty easy to spot.”

John Pinnington, head of Notre Dame School in Norwich, said: “Coursework has increased the workload for teachers, so it's a plus if they reduce the emphasis on coursework - as long as what they replace it with is not going to increase teacher workload.

“There's a danger in a minority of homes that plagiarism occurs. It's possible that it's increasing, especially with the availability of computers and the internet.

“So I would be cautiously supportive of this move. But one of the big benefits of coursework is that students learn a lot through the process of going through and doing the assignment.

“And it gives those who don't perform well in an exam a better chance.”

Today's move follows an announcement last week by education secretary Alan Johnson that coursework would be cut from GCSE maths.

Mr Johnson said last night: “Despite our rigorous system, more needs to be done to assure all parents that coursework assesses pupils' work in a fair and robust way. That is why we asked the QCA to examine the position of coursework within GCSEs.

“The changes that they have outlined today will toughen up the way in which coursework is assessed so that the hard work of the vast majority of students is not undermined by questions of validity.”

QCA chief executive Ken Boston insisted the current system of GCSE exams and coursework was “robust”.

He said: “We have a responsibility to ensure that assessments in high stakes external examinations, such as GCSEs, continue to be valid and reliable.”