Controlled Assessments – my experiences

Following the announcement by Michael Gove that, in future, GCSEs will no longer have a coursework element, the reaction from teachers has been swift and vocal.

In the main, the comments have been negative, focusing on the potential problems that less able children will face as a result. Certainly, children who panic in exams but who are otherwise able, will find the proposed system difficult, and probably unfair. But the current system is already unfair.

In the weeks leading up to the Summer half-term, I was present in 5 controlled assessments, in three different schools. Only three of those assessments were carried out wholly in accordance with published guidelines. The rest, whilst not being wholly against the rules, were certainly pushing the boundaries of acceptability. Although I was only present in a very small sample, it has to be remembered that this was only one year, and in the past I have had very similar experiences. And I cannot be the only person for whom this is true.

In the two controlled assessments where I feel the children were given more ‘help’ than they should have been allowed, it was such that it could possibly have made a difference of a least a grade if the situation had been replicated for all of their assessments. In moderately controlled assessments, children may be permitted to access the internet under supervised conditions or to have carried out some brief activity prior to the controlled assessment in class. What they are not supposed to do is to be able to use their smartphones to access the internet at will, or to take in pages of notes with them. One boy had stored his work on his phone and sat in the room copying it out.

On both these occasions I was in the room with the class teacher, acting as ‘another body’ to (theoretically) ensure that the children complied with the guidelines. The rules, therefore, were set by the class teacher, and not by a TA or me, a supply teacher. Had he checked this with the management team? I have no idea, but I cannot believe they would be totally clueless about the assessment methods in their school.

It also became apparent that the class had spent many hours practising the format of the assessments, as the teacher made constant reference to things they had done in the weeks before. He even mentioned that they had written about a very similar topic on a few occasions, so the children ought to have picked up some useful phrases and sentences that they could include. The children even discussed this amongst themselves, because, yes, they were allowed to talk quietly throughout. They were also told that if they did not finish in that lesson, another time would have to be set aside for them to complete the work.

The majority of schools, of course, probably do not do this, so it is unfair to remove controlled assessments and coursework from the GCSEs, right? No, I don’t think so.

In schools where the staff adhere strictly to the guidelines, the pupils work hard and produce work which is a true reflection of their abilities. They may not, therefore, ultimately achieve a very high grade.

However, where pupils are allowed to receive help, or otherwise given an unfair advantage, they may well receive a grade which is above their true ability. This is clearly unfair to the first set of pupils – and an indication that cheats prosper. Schools which may not teach as well as those above, may find that on paper they appear better, having higher numbers attaining those elusive GCSE grades. Clearly, this is manifestly unfair.

Unless schools are forced to bring in outside invigilators for controlled assessments, there is always the possibility that they have been administered unfairly. The invigilators would need to be from an independent organisation, not employed directly by the school, in order to maintain impartiality. But that simply isn’t going to happen, and it would place a huge financial burden if it did.

Given that, it is only fair that all pupils sitting their GCSEs do so from the same position – all work must be independent, must be completed in the set time, and done under controlled conditions. This means an exam. I cannot see another way of ensuring fairness, but if you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Finally, I have a friend who runs a business here in the UK. She was educated abroad, and has high expectations of her employees, with very strict qualification requirements for anyone she employs. A few months ago she was complaining about one of her employees, an enthusiastic hard worker, who was keen to take on as many projects as possible.

My friend was despairing, stating that she wished she had never taken him on. The problem was that he had to write reports that were then sent out to clients. Unfortunately, his writing skills were appalling, and my friend spent hours re-writing his reports. Time, she pointed out, in which she was not doing her own work, whilst at the same time paying him for a job she had to do anyway.

As she finally exclaimed in disgust, “You think he’d know when to use an apostrophe, wouldn’t you? He’s got an A at GCSE!”


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8 Responses to Controlled Assessments – my experiences

  1. bt0558 says:


    If I understood your blogpost, you are saying that “Controlled Assessments” must be replaced by examinations as “Controlled Assessments” are “unfair”.
    You say that “The rest, whilst not being wholly against the rules, were certainly pushing the boundaries of acceptability”.

    You describe several issues….

    “One boy had stored his work on his phone and sat in the room copying it out.”

    “yes, they were allowed to talk quietly throughout.”

    “What they are not supposed to do is to be able to use their smartphones to access the internet at will, or to take in pages of notes with them”

    You did include other issues but I believe that these three are sufficient to say that the centre went beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable within the rules.

    I think it is very sad that you would suggest that “outside invigilators” are needed as teachers and managers cannot be trusted.

    Surely any teacher who invigilates an assessment of any sort has a responsibility to ensure that it is carried out within the rules. I am sure you would have raised these issues with senior leaders at the school and the awarding body, and I would be interested to know what sort of response you recieved.

    The issues seem to me to be more about teachers/managers allowing pupils to cheat and that is perhaps the issue that should be addressed.

    As a professional educator you will know that there are some very real advantages to holding assessments other than “exams” in schools and I feel it is unfair that schools are unable to use some of them as teachers and managers cannot be trusted.

    • bt0558,

      I assume you have never worked as a supply teacher? A few years ago I did raise concerns I had about how a CA was carried out with the deputy head of the school. He thanked me for my concern. Later that day, I was called by my agency who wanted to know what had happened as the deputy had called them and said that I had ‘acted unprofessionally’ and that they did not want me to return. I explained what had occurred, and, although the agency understood and were sympathetic, they explained that it would be difficult for them to find me any more work as I would now be considered ‘unsuitable’ by schools that had contact with that one.

      I have learnt to keep quiet, hence this blog.

      As for raising the matter with the awarding body, that’s rather difficult when you don’t know which one it is, isn’t it?

      The pupil I saw using the smartphone was using that in place of written notes – in essence, a ‘stretching’ of the rules. The justification was that ‘notes are notes’. Some pupils had very detailed notes. I would have considered these to be in excess of the allowed amount, but the teacher did not.

      As you say, the issue is certainly one of allowing, or at least turning a blind eye to, cheating by teachers and managers. And it is for precisely that reason that I suggest that if CAs continue, outside invigilation is needed. As that is very unlikely to happen, in order for all children to be tested under the same conditions, then yes, we need exams.

    • cunningfox says:

      Very real advantages to holding assessments:

      1) The students can cheat.

      2) The teachers can cheat.

      3) Er…

      4) That’s it.

  2. forgotmypenmiss says:

    Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that the majority of schools *do* adhere to the rules as I have been present at a few CAs and have seen very similar if not exactly the same behaviours and attitudes. In fact, students were asked to write the essay beforehand, memorise it as much possible and reproduce the work in exam conditions. Bearing in mind that this work had been marked with an indication towards a grade. It could be coincidence or it could just be happening a lot of the time and in most schools. I agree that teachers should be able to be trusted but they’re under so much pressure to reach certain targets in challenging conditions that they seem to be compromising fairness for results. It’s still wrong though – loved your post.

  3. cunningfox says:

    Exactly my experience of CA – thank you for this.

    A further point, which you don’t mention (I think), is that, for practical reasons of time management, CA’s are frequently spread across several lessons on three or four days. That means that students with a reasonable memory of what they have written are able to go home, discuss it with their parents or their private tutor and go back the next day to rewrite it. It also means, of course, that there is also ample opportunity for them to ask each other what they have written, agree on the best answer, and then go back the next day and change their answer so that it matches the agreed one.

    If anything, CA’s are worse than ordinary coursework because by mimicking exams they give a pretence of security, while being just as insecure as coursework ever was.

  4. Therese says:

    The only difference between coursework and controlled assessment (at least in English, my subject) is that the locus of cheating has now shifted from the parent or private tutor to the teacher.

  5. chestnut says:

    Controlled assessments are awful. Even if there was no cheating they take away valuable time from teaching and learning, as schools inevitably want ‘to be able to choose the best one’ so they do (make teachers conduct) more than they need. Let us teach, let the children learn and then test them. Simple.

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