Leading article: Time to clean up coursework

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The Independent Online

The focus has been so unrelentingly on the Education Bill in the past few weeks that people may have forgotten the important changes to the examination system wending their way through the system.

There were two examples of this last week: first, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority - the Government's exams watchdog - issued a leaflet reminding teachers that they must be on the lookout for coursework cheating. One of the methods they could use is giving oral tests to pupils on their coursework to see if they can remember and understand what they have written. While this may appear eminently sensible, it does draw attention to the need to press full speed ahead with the review of coursework ordered by the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly. She is aiming for it to be used as a sort of assessment of last resort - a far better way to eliminate cheating than putting further pressure on overburdened youngsters, who may be as honest as the day is long, and taking up more of the school timetable with testing.

The second innovation was the QCA's consultation exercise on the new functional skills tests - designed to find out whether pupils with top grade GCSE passes in English know all about grammar and punctuation, and maths pupils can do their sums. The idea is that no pupil should be allowed to obtain an A* to C grade pass unless they pass their functional skills test - and the debate is over whether it should be a separate paper taken before the exam or part of the main paper.

For once, we find ourselves in agreement with the Campaign for Real Education, which argues that it is far too bureaucratic to have the pupils take one test and then have to marry up these results to their main paper scripts. Far better, it argues, to just deduct sufficient marks for poor punctuation and spelling in the main paper. One advantage in this approach would be that someone who is brilliant at marshalling their thoughts in an argued essay, but makes mistakes in punctuation, is not just written off as a failure or only worthy of a low-grade pass. That may not have been the aim behind the introduction of the concept of functional skills, but it does seem to have an element of fairness to it.

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