Education Quandary

'Why cut GCSE coursework, then bring in extended essays for older pupils? Where is the consistency?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

Let's go back to first principles. What is the point of asking pupils to do independent work outside the classroom? Clearly, it is to encourage them to examine a subject in depth, research into it, and develop a reasoned argument about it. When coursework was introduced for GCSE students, it was also hoped that it would increase motivation by encouraging pupils to explore topics that interested them, and allow them to be judged by more than just exams.

But things went wrong. Over the years, it became clear that girls were better at coursework than boys, and that children with supportive parents did better than those without. Then came the internet, which allowed children - the little beasts! - to download material wholesale. Meanwhile, GCSE results increasingly became the measure by which secondary schools were judged, so some teachers would do anything to get good results, including writing coursework templates that only left students to fill in the gaps.

No wonder both pupils and teachers began to view coursework with cynicism, as well as feeling that, at GCSE level, it was burdening pupils with far too many projects at once.

But it is vital that students learn how to compile and evaluate information, and develop logical arguments from it. Mike Tomlinson outlined this in his diploma recommendations for 16- to 19-year-olds, and schools and sixth- form colleges are now running with the idea. They feel that it gives older pupils a chance to show what they are made of, while universities feel that it could help to separate the super-bright applicants from the bright.

Readers' advice

The experience of the International Baccalaureate, where students have to do an extended piece of work, has shown how valuable this is for those of 16-plus. It has to be their own work, and allows them the freedom to dig as widely and deeply as they want, and shows up how well they can think. It should be part of all sixth-form courses, instead of things being broken down into smaller and smaller modules, as seems to happen now.

Geraldine Lawrence, Kent

As a parent who has spent far too many hours on history and geography projects, I would like to see an end to GCSE coursework! I have two laid-back, disorganised sons, and have never known whether to help them or not. I often have, but then they sit back and expect me to do everything. All they seem to learn is that they can get by on other people's efforts.

Jessica Steinberg, London NW8

In Year 10, you feel overwhelmed by your coursework assignments. There are so many, and they all come at once, and some of them, such as maths, seem so pointless, while others, such as geography, take up so much time. But I wouldn't have minded doing a long piece of work on English literature when I was in the sixth form. It would have been interesting to read up about a favourite poet or novelist, and a good preparation for the following year at university.

Gayle Meredith, Reading

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary

What is the logic of dumbing down the school science curriculum when we all know that what we are going to need more than anything in the future will be first-class scientists to tackle problems such as climate change and disease pandemics. Isn't this just another educational madness that is only looking at short-term political gains?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 30 October, to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax: 020-7005 2143; or e-mail: h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack of a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

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