English mark schemes are often unfairly attacked for being subjective and open to manipulation, and nowhere is this claim made more vehemently than when regarding coursework. As a teacher of English, this is an accusation with which I have always strongly disagreed. Within the departments in which I have worked, the marking and standardisation of coursework has been a strictly controlled process. Regulated in this way, the marks that are given stand up robustly to comparison with marks from other teachers inside – and, crucially, outside – the schools in which they are given. Of course, in the majority of schools, coursework is controlled and regulated in exactly this way.
But, unfortunately, this is not the case in all schools. Ever since coursework marks have counted towards the final GCSE grade, there have been serious concerns that schools could inflate their coursework marks in order to improve their pass rates – and in order to meet their exam-based targets. These concerns over coursework escalated last year, when a report by the qualifications and assessments regulator, Ofqual, reported that teachers had significantly overmarked pupils’ coursework essays – and that they had felt under pressure to do so. Ofqual described teachers as being forced to choose between their ‘principles on the one hand, and their students, school and career on the other’.
Now, even the examining bodies themselves are beginning to turn against coursework. A spokesperson for OCR, one of the main GCSE examining bodies, has this week described the coursework system as ‘open to abuse’. The entire coursework system, they say, needs reworking, in order to restore confidence in the exam system as a whole.
It’s not coursework itself which is the problem – the educational benefits of coursework are well known. Both Ofqual and OCR have recognised that coursework is only a problem within the exam system in which it sits. In our education system – which is driven by league tables and over-burdened with targets, inspections and objectives – teachers and schools are forced to find ways to improve their results – and inflating the coursework grades is an easy way of doing so. There are two possible solutions to this situation: either the emphasis on targets and results must subside somewhat, or the coursework element of our exam system must go. One of these is significantly easier to achieve than the other. So, despite the educational benefits that a properly standardised coursework system can bring to our pupils, it looks more and more likely that it’s time for coursework to go.