Education: Bring it all back home

School project work has a lot going for it as a teaching method, but it is also a font of parental cheating, rampant copying and a resourcing nightmare.

It was Sunday and a time of domestic bliss until... "Oh," says Doris, "Jim's A-level project is due in on Thursday." His folder revealed three bits of scruffy paper. There have been condemned men's breakfast menus with more writing on them. There then followed a time I can only equate to the German counter-offensive on the western front in March 1918. Bodies loomed up every now and then through the chaos. Panic and despair were everywhere. Only one figure kept calm amid the debris, like Field Marshal Haig, unaware of the total catastrophe that he had created. It is good to have a teenager to remind you of the really important things in life at a time like that: keeping up with the Australian and American soaps; ringing the girlfriend to update her on events; and gazing at your spots for long periods in the mirror.

As a teaching method, project work has a lot going for it. We all want our children to be self-motivated, independent learners. In the last 30 years, project work has come to dominate our classrooms, so in consequence an ever-larger percentage of GCSE and A-level work is devoted to it.

Yet I find myself becoming more and more uneasy about the whole thing. For a start, it places an ever-increasing load on teachers. In old-style education you prepared one lesson; in project work, you virtually prepare as many as there are in the class. Resourcing it is something of a nightmare. If everybody in the class does the same project, then the resources are under an impossible stress. If everybody does something different, then the teacher must find resources to suit each individual need.

For students, project work is a mixed blessing. For the bright and committed, it can be a really exciting opportunity. One of my students filmed and wrote up the experience of being in the Fastnet yacht race. She got sponsorship from Kodak and the loan of a special camera. Not only did she create a wonderful opportunity and gain a good final grade, she also got local and national press coverage. The experience looked good on a Ucas form and it has done well for her at interviews ever since. But most adolescents have a tendency to put things off to the last moment, and project work can mean a lot of wasted time. Group work can mean that one or two pupils tend to do most of the hard graft, while the rest merely tread water.

Assessing project work has been one of the biggest growth areas in education. An army of moderators, verifiers and assessors (internal and external) now exists. A simple task, such as giving feedback to an individual student, can take just five minutes, yet it may take up to two hours to write up as part of the qualification.

Endless boxes must be ticked. (Were you aware of your body language when you gave feedback? Were you aware of the student's body language when you gave feedback? Did you take into consideration the student's race, gender, religion and sexual orientation when you gave feedback?)

I am also increasingly aware that I am often not assessing the student alone, but the student and parents. As the percentage of marks for project work increases and the competition to get into most universities grows, so the temptation to give more than a helping hand gets ever more real. Most parents will deny it and they all know that, in the long term, it is doing students no real favours. But when they are looking down the barrel of a failure or a poor grade, then they often succumb. Those pious statements that students sign to say that the work is all their own often have the sincerity of Hitler's remarks that this was his final territorial demand. Aiding and abetting project work is becoming one of the secret crimes of middle-class Britain.

Then there is new technology. No library can even remotely rival the Internet for information. But, I hear you cry, surely the schools have computers? Of course they do, but getting near one for any long period of time with a project imminent is like joining the queue for a lifeboat on the Titanic.

And this ignores the problems of vandalism, breakdowns, other classes' use and players enjoying card games on the screen. Those students who have access to a computer at home have a massive advantage over those who don't.

New technology has also encouraged something that teachers have largely tried to ignore. The copying of other's work or adapting large chunks grows apace. When it involves other schools and other areas, it is impossible to control. I have heard of a project that has been done by three students already. I suspect that by the time Bill Gates launches Windows 2006, it will be possible to type in "Soil Erosion in Stoke Poges" and press a key and out will come the finished project, complete with WHSmith carrier bag to take it to school.

The truth is that not even Superman or Superwoman could regulate the vast piles of project work piling up for assessment all over the country. For the eight years that I tutored an A-level I used to tie up my projects in a special granny knot. On seven occasions I got them back with the knot untied and the marks unchanged. One year the board lost every single project, so I have no means of knowing.

We need to untie a lot more knots, if projects are to have any real meaning in education.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

AER Teachers: Early Years Teaching Assistant Newham

Negotiable: AER Teachers: Outstanding East London primary school seeking an Ea...

AER Teachers: Southwark primary School looking for teaching assistants

Negotiable: AER Teachers: Southwark primary School looking for teaching assist...

Royal College of Music: Assistant to the Deputy Director & the Director of Research

£24,451 - £27,061 per annum: Royal College of Music: The Royal College of Musi...

Guru Careers: Marketing Analyst / Optimisation Analyst

£35 - £45k DOE + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing / Optimisation Analyst is...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future