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

education@independent.co.uk

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
News
people
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: MIS Officer - Further Education Sector

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Operating throughout London and...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K - £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been we...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?