The Future of Controlled Assessment

One major legacy of the current government will be the introduction of controlled assessment across the GCSE range. This has profound implications for the future of education in this country.

Controlled assessment replaces the relatively “relaxed” regime of coursework which has been a big part of GCSE exams for the last 24 years. There is a belief that too many parents were, in effect, writing coursework for their children and that something needs to be done about this in order to shore up the academic credibility of the GCSE system.

Rather than get rid of coursework altogether, the government’s “solution” is to turn coursework into something like another exam.  Now it must be timed, supervised and carefully regulated at all stages of preparation, so that parents and other helpers are unable to load the dice.

Although this seems well-intentioned and sensible, it has a number of catastrophic side effects. It means that most GCSEs have become almost impossible for distance learners and home-educated students, indeed virtually everyone outside mainstream education. This, in turn, may damage the educational prospects of many different categories of learners.

Although the government understood that this would be a consequence of controlled assessment, they refused to allow the exam boards to offer alternative GCSE specifications without coursework or any other leeway for unsupervised candidates.

One consequence has been a rise in popularity of IGCSE courses precisely because these do not entail coursework. So far the government has refused to allow IGCSE courses to be funded or included in the National Qualifications Framework but fortunately colleges and universities understand that IGCSEs cover the same ground as GCSEs and are, if anything, more academically rigorous. So an IGCSE is “worth” every bit as much as GCSE. Nonetheless, this is a highly unsatisfactory situation.

A further consequence of the insistence on face-to-face supervision is to stall the introduction of new teaching media. Who would want to study online if they were unable to pass any examinations that way? Thus the UK risks falling behind its competitors because it insists on a single mode of teaching and learning (i.e. face to face) at the expense of more sophisticated methods.

I believe a new government will review controlled assessment and do one of two things. It will either allow the exam boards to make alternative arrangements for candidates who can’t (or don’t want to) do coursework, or it will bring IGCSE into the mainstream, monitor it and fund it properly. Then we can return to a situation where there is genuine educational opportunity for all, not just for 14-16 year olds in mainstream education.

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