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!”