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Last Updated: Friday, 13 May 2005, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
The problem with exam coursework
By Angela Harrison
BBC News education reporter

Pupil writing
Claims that Prince Harry was given "inappropriate help" by an art teacher in his AS-level coursework have renewed a debate about the value of coursework in exams.

The allegations - denied by the royal family and Eton - were made by an art teacher during an industrial tribunal where she is claiming unfair dismissal.

An investigation by the exam board Edexcel found no evidence of malpractice.

Critics of examined coursework say the system is open to abuse, but supporters argue it is a good motivator which also helps pupils who are not good at revision.

BBC education correspondent Mike Baker says there are three main areas of concern about coursework.

"The first is the danger of plagiarism, of pupils copying work from the internet or friends," he said.

"Then there is the help from home. It is difficult for parents, but there is a difference between showing children where to find information on the internet and writing out whole passages.

"Thirdly, there is help offered by teachers: work is marked by teachers and can be sent back between teacher and pupil and this can make a difference."

'Onerous process'

Exam boards are on the look-out for cheating. Last year, the three main English exam boards found roughly 3,500 cases of "malpractice", or cheating. This can include actions such as taking mobile phones into exam halls as well as plagiarism.

Coursework was introduced with GCSEs in 1988, when it was possible to complete a whole exam subject with it.

But since then, the proportion of coursework has been scaled down.

Coursework typically accounts for 30 - 40% of an exam, except for subjects such as design and technology where the proportion can be higher.

At the Royal Hospital School, near Ipswich in Suffolk, the languages department choose not to have any examined coursework.

Languages teacher and head of drama at the school Simon Warr explained why on BBC Radio Five Live's Mayo programme.

At the moment the temptation to cheat is inexhaustible
Simon Warr, teacher

"Can you think of anything less motivating than bogging pupils down with this constant drafting and re-drafting?

"It leads to boredom. It's an onerous process. Teachers are submerged for weeks, marking and re-marking. And if pupils produce work which is substandard, it is just given back and given back until it is ok."

Mr Warr said he could understand why coursework could be good for pupils who find exam situations very difficult and also good preparation for university.

But he said it should be done by pupils going away to research a subject but then coming into school, to produce the coursework under supervised conditions.

"At the moment the temptation to cheat is inexhaustible and those pupils who are disadvantaged are those where the parents are not interested in education," he said.

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said there was merit in the system, despite some problems with it.

"The notion that spending two years learning something, then, two weeks beforehand getting it stuck in the back of our minds and then writing it down in a splurge in an exam is a useful skill to have I am very doubtful about. That's not the way we work in real life.

"The sort of work we are talking about (coursework) is a better preparation for what most people will do in higher education or in most types of employment."

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10 Oct 03 |  Education

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