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.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
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.