Didn't mum do well in my GCSEs?

Coursework represents a third of the overall mark in most GCSEs. And it opens up lots of possibilities to cheat, argues Andrew Cunningham
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The Independent Online

Spring Term is the peak time for GCSE coursework. In March, teenagers will complete tasks in most GCSE subjects - coursework representing on average around 30 per cent of their final grade. But is the whole system terminally flawed? Are there too many ways it can be cheated?

Spring Term is the peak time for GCSE coursework. In March, teenagers will complete tasks in most GCSE subjects - coursework representing on average around 30 per cent of their final grade. But is the whole system terminally flawed? Are there too many ways it can be cheated?

Assuming direct cheating is not the norm, there are still many indirect ways in which work can be influenced. Many GCSE teachers will express concerns about the way coursework can be discreetly "massaged". Here are some overt and covert examples:

1 Direct parental help. Coursework offers a green light for the concerned middle-class parent, anxious about their child's future, to lend a helping hand. In my subject, English, I know many parents themselves studied current GCSE set texts, like Macbeth and The Mayor of Casterbridge. Under the present system, there is nothing to prevent them passing off essays in which they have had a major input (or even written) - each of which could count for 10 per cent of their child's final grade. Concerned parents have always helped their children with homework. With coursework, they actually have the opportunity to do that homework.

2 Indirect parental help. Pushy middle-class parents can be at an advantage. A colleague revealed how, at one Guildford comprehensive, geography coursework was significantly helped by well-off parental involvement. In consultation with her parents, a student chose to write a project on "Tourism in Guildford and York". The whole family duly de-camped to York for a week to help her with the research. A less well-off child would never have had the opportunity of such a glamorous project.

Again, in English, if middle-class parents have the means to take their child to Stratford to see a Shakespeare set-text on stage, the child will gain extra understanding of the play.

3 Parental bribery. Bribery of teachers is rare. But I was staggered to hear the following evidence from a respected colleague (who wants to remain anonymous). She tells of a comprehensive in Woking, Surrey, where a parent openly offered a geography teacher £200 "to put a lot of effort in" on their child's main geography coursework project. Not surprisingly, the teacher took neither the offer nor the cash.

4 The internet. Teachers must increasingly contend with teenagers downloading material from the internet and passing it off as original work. Some of these attempts at cheating are so transparent as to be comical; but some fake work must slip through. Many teenagers are more expert with computers than their teachers.

Stevie Pattison-Dick, press officer for Edexcel, one of the biggest exam boards, is aware of the internet problem and argues: "Edexcel is quite clued-up as to what resources are available on the web. We'd pick up any answers lifted directly from resources like our own and the BBC's." But there have been well-publicised reports from America recently of model essays and answers sold to students on the internet for as little as $30 (£20).

5 Rewriting work with direct teacher help. Worryingly, the most common way in which coursework can be abused - the redrafting of work with individual teacher help - is unofficially sanctioned by both exam and school authorities. It's particularly common in essay subjects like English and history. A student is allowed as many goes as he/she wishes at a piece of coursework. Each time he submits the work, his teacher will add helpful comments - "I suggest you develop this point more fully..." / "say more about this side of Macbeth's character..." - and talk these tips through with them. Conscientious English and history teachers do this all the time. The student then resubmits the coursework with the helpful comments incorporated.

From my experience, such redrafting plays a crucial role in hiking up unsatisfactory D-grade essays to the critical C-grade GCSE "pass" level. With constant redrafting, even the weakest candidates learn to pack essays with the textual detail that will inevitably secure them C, or even B, grades. Again, students at problem schools will be disadvantaged, as they are more likely to be taught by temporary staff who are unlikely to offer that level of individual assistance.

What checks do the exam boards themselves make on coursework? The rules sound impressive on paper - with exam boards vetting and sampling coursework and having the right to call in an entire school's work - but how do they ensure their systems are not abused? Stevie Pattison-Dick stresses exam boards are aware of the potential problem: "We do police cheating, and it is dealt with severely when it's discovered. Each case of cheating is judged on its merits, but a candidate found guilty could be excluded from that exam, or indeed from re-sitting it."

What action, for example, would they take if a candidate achieved a D grade in exam papers, yet scored A grades in all his coursework? "If a parent was doing a child's coursework and the mark was significantly higher, we would expect the class teacher to pick it up. A lot comes down to teacher and parent integrity."

George Turnbull of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance stresses the advantages coursework can bring. "Coursework was introduced to encourage the student to do more research. If you lose that element, you lose a vital skill prized by employers."

But he, too, emphasises the crucial role teachers play in identifying unrepresentative work. "If a student is struggling, and then all of a sudden produces pristine work, it is difficult not to spot it. I would expect the teacher to ask questions in such cases."

Therein lies the problem. Without being paid a penny more, too much onus is falling upon class teachers to check a child is performing at a level that does not suggest unfair help. Teachers are already stretched. In league tables-obsessed times, they also have a considerable incentive to ensure their classes score as good grades as possible. To ask them to act as sole arbiters of whether every candidate is performing consistently in coursework is to give them another impossible burden.

The key arguments for coursework when it was introduced in 1988 were that it relieves exam pressures on children and makes sure each child's score is representative of their ability. Coursework's biggest crime is that it ensures the child with the best resources and pushiest parents benefits from more help and attention - and, ultimately, from better grades.

* The writer is an English teacher at Cranleigh School, Surrey

* education@independent.co.uk

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