Juliana Otter: Why coursework casts a shadow over family life

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The Independent Online

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