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Friday, 2 November, 2001, 23:50 GMT
Parents 'need advice over coursework'
By BBC education correspondent Mike Baker
OK, hands up all of you who are currently struggling with GCSE coursework. Thank you.
Now, those of you who are still at school put your hands down. Hmm! As I thought, rather a lot of parents still with their hands in the air.
As the clocks go back, the temperatures fall, and the October half-term break fades into distant memory, the GCSE coursework deadlines mount up like a sequence of hurdles stretching through the months ahead.
However it is not always the students themselves who are scurrying off to the library and wearing out their keyboards with drafting and re-drafting.
Few areas of public examinations are as vulnerable to plagiarism and cheating as GCSE coursework. By A-levels, most parents are probably out of their depth.
But at GCSE, many parents have not yet given up, or despaired of, improving their children's exam performances.
They can find it very hard not to assist just a little bit: buying that book, laying on an extra family field trip, searching for appropriate web-sites, checking their child's grammar and spelling, assisting in re-drafting or even dusting off their own old school or university essays.
Good coursework can lift exam grades. Although the last Conservative government put limits on how much coursework could count towards final grades, it is quite common for 25% to 30% of marks to be earned through coursework rather than final examination.
Exam boards and teachers know that cheating happens. They have rules to try to stop it. But these rules are rather vague and leave a huge responsibility on individual schools and teachers.
"Without any additional assistance" is defined here as any help "beyond that given to the class as a whole".
So, presumably that includes even a parent leaning over and correcting a spelling mistake.
I wonder how many parents realise that they could be putting their child at risk of having their result declared void by offering to cast an eye over their coursework efforts.
Now I am a supporter of the coursework principle. It is a useful balance to the memorise-and-regurgitate, race-against-the-clock, technique of the traditional final exam.
In some subjects, like Art or Design and Technology, it is particularly valuable.
I can even speak from experience. Although far too ancient to have experienced GCSEs first-hand, I attended a school which decided O-level English literature was not worth the paper the certificate was printed on.
In its place, it introduced its own 100% coursework scheme.
But that coursework was so different from today's. We had to select an author, or group of authors, read lots of their works (not just one or two set texts) and then write a lengthy thesis.
We chose the author, did the reading and research ourselves and had no help with drafting from the teacher.
I suspect it was a much better preparation for A-level (and for that matter, degree-level) English literature than the rote-learning of O-level texts.
By contrast some of today's coursework seems to me to be over-controlled and rehearsed by schools.
Students are given the information required. They get a chance to try out their essays and to receive limited advice on redrafting.
I have even heard of teachers giving out worksheets with appropriate quotations and synopses from a range of books to save students having to read the originals themselves.
If some schools, some teachers and some parents provide more assistance than others, how can we be sure that the grades are a fair reflection of students' abilities and efforts?
If it is acceptable for teachers to give some general hints on redrafting of coursework, how do we judge when they overstep the mark?
I am not one who habitually joins the chorus decrying GCSE standards, but if you can repeat, and keep repeating, your coursework efforts until teachers deem it satisfactory then is this part of the explanation for the consistent improvement in grades?
On one level, this doesn't matter. We can all learn a lot from the process of supervised redrafting of our output.
The GCSE has always been about allowing students to show what they can learn rather than taking a snap-shot of their memory.
But if the level of help being provided varies there is no fairness.
Equally if, as sometimes seems to be the case, coursework is based entirely on reproducing work that was done in the classroom, where is the challenge of individual research?
I came to this issue as a parent who thought he knew what coursework involved and found, to admit my own ignorance, that I did not.
Perhaps it would be useful if schools and exam boards explained again what coursework involves, what the limits on parental assistance should be, and why it is a worthwhile alternative to other methods of examination?
I would be interested to hear the views of parents, teachers and examiners, particularly on any difficulties or dilemmas they have experienced in this matter.
Then maybe I can use your tips to redraft, and improve, this column.
Mike Baker and the education team welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org although cannot always answer individual e-mails.
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