Having spent the past 4 Saturdays in school working on coursework, you would think I’d want to spend my first Saturday “off” not thinking about it.
I’ll admit, I didn’t think I would get along with coursework. I began teaching as coursework ended; I’d been trained in Controlled Assessment and as far as I was concern, it was a great grade-getter. It also gave me several hours at the end of each term of catch-up marking during precious lesson time while the little chickens wrote for their lives, which in the early years of teaching was a vote-winner for me. Controlled Assessment was controlled; entirely in my power. They did it, handed it in at the end, I marked it; nothing went wrong, I didn’t have to chase anyone.
Indeed, my first year teaching coursework was last year with an AS group. I found myself threatening students that I would be submitting a draft version, or not marking a draft, because they had missed the various deadlines by so long. I found myself caving to my own threats as I recalled that their grades were my performance management; life lesson for them spared. As I spent so much time calling home and calling students and tracking them down, I was moved even more to appreciate the wonders of Controlled Assessment.
Moving to my next school, then, I was a little nervous to be told that we taught the iGCSE for English Language, which requires no Controlled Assessment, but instead three pieces of coursework, each totaling 500-800 words. Particularly picking up a year 11 class, I did not fancy my prospects for an easy life.
Yet I have grown, very quickly, to love coursework, and, in particular, to despair at its eradication from the English curriculum.
Coursework has at its heart re-drafting. Until this year, I had never taught that skill. It changed the way I taught almost immediately. The focus on dialogue marking had never seemed so relevant: we want students to learn how to improve and then be given the opportunity to do it! Unlike Controlled Assessment, where an errant C from an A-targeted student would lead to many hours of re-teaching, re-taking and re-testing, instead I could cover a page with questions (“how could you make this simile more interesting?” “can you think of a better word?” “CONNECTIVES?!?”) and supervise them as they made the small tweaks which would make all the difference.
In year 10, we were free to teach a rich and varied curriculum; assessment no longer punctuated the teaching or became the end; instead it was a short diversion – “Write the narrative of the Lady of Shalott” for Assignment 2, and then in a few more weeks we’ll start comparing that with Shakespeare and Jane Eyre, and so your knowledge of literature will blossom. (But of course, I will go on to kill your joy with an incredibly challenging piece of Literature Controlled Assessment which requires you to not only write well about one challenging text, but to also compare it with another challenging text in an interesting way, while situating both texts firmly in their (relevant) context. This is a task which half of you will grasp perfectly and the other half fail miserably, thus consigning your year 11 to long sojourns after school as I re-teach you a different question – but that’s another story.)
In year 11, we learned the texts for the Literature exam, and spent some time tweaking the three best pieces of coursework, marking and re-marking; never correcting, but always guiding. It felt holistic. It felt right. It felt like I could teach a child, rather than an assessment.
Then there were the tiny handful of children who had not achieved a C in their coursework. Their current marks often indicated several missing pieces. I decided I would give them four Saturday mornings as a small class to work on their coursework.
As soon as I met the children (though crucially, not all the children – getting some of these particular lovelies to turn up on a Saturday was no picnic) it became immediately apparent that all should have no cognitive trouble achieving at least a C. Many of them made the necessary changes in record time. It was what they did when they weren’t working which held them back.
These were students who had been held back by their own approach to learning; some became easily distracted and a few were prone to grumbling. Most were incredibly frustrated when I continued to demand more of them – more changes, more improvements. Their natural inclination was to give up when it felt hard.
We persevered, and encouraged, and praised, and rewarded these students. Looking through most of their folders last Saturday, I could not believe how far they had come, and with really very little guidance above what I gave my own students, most of whom were firmly in C territory and aiming higher. They were nudged in the right direction, kept on the straight and narrow, and produced some really great pieces of work. They also showed me that they were able to work in a focused and positive way for a sustained period of time.
Something I’ve always believed is that every student can at least achieve a C in English. I have yet to meet a student who disproves this for me. My caveat is as to how long it takes them. So, for a student who has only just come to the country and speaks limited English, maybe no C for you this time. But with unlimited time and unlimited resources, every student can at least make this benchmark.
What coursework gives us is less limited time. The harder to reach students, with poorer attendance and a history of poor behaviour in school, leading to missed lessons and exclusion, can be caught by coursework in a way they can’t by Controlled Assessment, or an exam. Success in coursework can also show these students what they are capable of, building their self-esteem and honing their writing skills. It is more like Austin’s butterfly than a high-stakes C-making factory.
My concern with a 100% exam system is that we lose students. There are students who are desperately at risk in our school system, and as children this risk is rarely of their own making. A system which allows students to bank nothing will undeniably lead to some bright spark missing out, and I fear that they will look all too familiar to me. Students need a win; they need to see where they are; they also need to see what they can achieve if they put in the time and the effort. I want to spend less time assessing students, not more. I want to spend more time helping them to make their work as perfect as they can, and I worry that a system which does not value or prioritise redrafting cannot do that. When schools’ reputations and funding are on the line, who doesn’t teach to the test? We have the possibility, though, of a test which is as non-intrusive as possible, allowing for creativity, for making mistakes and for lapses in judgement.
This does not just impact on our hardest to reach students, but also our high fliers, who may in the far-flung future turn up at university having never learned the skill of improvement, but only learned how to write the perfect essay in an hour, without a sense of how much more developed it can be with time, effort and research. My year 12 essays this year were a pleasure to mark; students had visited the library (or possibly Google Books) and found critical theory I’d never encountered; their pieces were scholarly and assured. That cannot happen under exam conditions; they must have room to discover and research for themselves by A-level.
The argument will be made that it is down to teachers to ensure these skills are still embedded, even while they are not tested. But there is always the looming thought that the best way I can serve my students is to get them the best possible marks. It shouldn’t be like this.
I loved my Saturdays with these students. I felt genuinely sad that our time together was coming to an end. Those days, watching students write pieces that they or I had never thought them capable of, and getting to know these wonderful young people in slightly more laid-back settings, made me remember why this truly can be the best job in the world.