Juliana Otter: Why coursework casts a shadow over family life

aking at 2 am this morning, I found my 16-year-old son still at his desk, finishing his music coursework. Like many parents, I believe the toll that coursework takes on family life is intolerable. Widespread public concern with all aspects of coursework prompted the Government to ask the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) for a review into its role.

When I was teaching English in a comprehensive, back in the Eighties, I loved coursework. It made the children work independently. It ignited enthusiasm in students of all abilities and allowed those terrified of traditional exams to show their true colours. Pupils who rarely tried at anything would turn in conscientious pieces of work. A few children occasionally plagiarised but I could tell when they had because their written language suddenly became incongruously sophisticated. Sometimes a parent would take too great a hand in an essay - but better, I reasoned, that parents should be over-involved than not at all.

Now, I hate coursework - or rather, I hate the quantity of it and the fact that pupils are sent back to redo the same task countless times over. By the end of this process the teenager is normally fed up, never wishing to discuss the First World War or hear a single line of Romeo and Juliet ever again. Moreover, with the publication of mark schemes, coursework no longer fosters the independence that it once did. Even in topics they have chosen themselves, students must demonstrate pre-established skills and levels of knowledge and the attempt to do so kills off much of the individuality of their work.

Some of the change has been in me. When I was teaching, parents would occasionally murmur that there was too much coursework and that all the teachers seemed to demand it at once. Blithely unaware of the adolescent need for masses of sleep and hotly competitive with other departments, I gave little thought to their concerns. Until, that is, my own children began to do coursework and I realised the enormous shadow it could cast over family life. I am well into my third year as a GCSE and/or A-level parent now, and each year I have breathed a sigh of relief when coursework is, after countless extended deadlines, finally completed; the stress caused by traditional exams is, by comparison, light.

Even from an objective viewpoint, however, coursework stress is greater than it was in my day. In the age of league tables and merit pay, performance simply matters more. I never sent coursework essays back for rewriting - my son and daughter have redrafted most of theirs three or four times. Moreover, even in otherwise excellent educational establishments, confusion reigns about how much teachers are permitted to help their pupils; some even within the same department offer far more aid than others. Big grumbles ensue: "Mr So-and-so wrote out an essay plan for his class but Miss Wotsit says we've got to do it ourselves, how unfair is that!" And so on. Small wonder then, that, on the receiving end of such moans, and naturally concerned about their progeny's life chances, parents often help with coursework far more than they really should. A Mori poll carried out last autumn found that five per cent of parents were actually drafting their children's GCSE coursework for them.

One of the problems is that often they don't know how much help is acceptable. Confusion reigns here too. A leaflet produced by the QCA in response to this poll advises parents that it's OK to discuss coursework topics with your child and help them find appropriate websites and books, but not to put pen to paper for them. But I only found this leaflet during a search on the QCA website. My children have certainly not brought it home from school.

Nevertheless, my children's schools are trying hard - when it comes to repetitive redrafting, teacher conscientiousness is actually the problem. I still believe in the value of coursework, at least in a scaled down form that would encourage, rather than partially inhibit, individual enquiry and expression. It would be great if the QCA review into A-levels could replace coursework with a single extended project on a topic that the student finds especially interesting. It would be even better if a similar GCSE coursework reform could follow suit. And it would be excellent if the views of parents, as well as educational professionals, could be taken into account. It is, after all, at home, where parents, rather than teachers, are in charge, that coursework is mainly done.

The writer has taught English at secondary and FE level. Two of her four children are enduring public examinations


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete tomorrow
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
peopleBroadcaster has a new role bringing 'the big stories that matter' to US
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
Life and Style
Moves to regulate e-cigarettes and similar products as medicines come amid increasing evidence of their effectiveness
healthHuge anti-smoking campaign kicks off on Wednesday
Life and Style
fashionEveryone, apparently
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
Arts and Entertainment
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently
filmsAn 'eccentric' choice, certainly
Life and Style
An Internet security expert has warned that voice recognition technology needs to be more secure
techExperts warn hackers could control our homes or spend our money simply by speaking
peopleBenjamin Netanyahu trolled by group promoting two-state solution
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Supply teachers required for secondary schools in Peterborough

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...

English Teacher - January

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: English Teacher A Hull school i...

Humanities Teacher - January

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Humanities, Religious Education ...

Science Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Science Teacher - South Es...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style