Yes, I remember coursework: one afternoon of heat, the exam train stopped there; it was late June.
Or it may have been July. Certainly by September, we were totally committed: that year’s cohort of year 10s would do an English course that was not 20 per cent coursework, not 50 per cent coursework, but 100 per cent coursework. Yes! All of it!
A timed class exercise was in there somewhere (surely?) but no final, externally set exam. Just a fat file for each candidate of 10 pieces of work covering the range of English tasks – the usual suspects of creative, imaginative, functional, persuasive, factual or fanciful pieces of written work.
At the time, I headed an English department of four, in a city girls’ grammar school, and I recall how we really were sold on the rhetoric: “End-of-term exams, time limits, pressure do not reflect the real world these students will enter for work and life. There, people do drafts and re-do them, have second thoughts, improve their work. Let this qualification reflect what they know, understand and can do, not what they can produce in a panic-stricken rush with hayfever in a hot exam room.”
Did we not see, coming towards us like trains, two things? First, the possibility that self-interest coupled with weak policing would mean highly literate parents were quite happy to “contribute” to their daughter’s homework efforts – “Darling, just a little tweak..?” Second, the certainty that even if the first did not happen, everyone would think it had.
Lord, how we worked to make it fair and even and abso-flaming-lutely above board and utterly defensible to parents, colleagues, the head, and a Crown Court if necessary. Across four teaching sets we held broadly to the same tasks, the same texts. We monitored each other’s marking regularly. We demanded a day off timetable – “A whole day! For the entire English department? Are you mad?” – to moderate the final, fat folders.
After our wrangling, sample folders for each grade boundary went to the exam board for verification. We quaked till we got our lists back, approving a combined eight years of real effort on our part as well as the students. And I honestly do not recall any grade changes being made.
I do recall students who enjoyed the many and various challenges we set them, enjoyed clocking their progress across two years, enjoyed making extra special effort where we could demonstrate the need, (or a grade boundary being too close for comfort – or a higher one within reach).
Quite how we would have managed the whole business in a bigger school with really mixed-ability classes is another matter, though I believe trying to acknowledge better the talents of all students, academic or not, was one of the first incentives to introduce coursework.
With time, repeated effort, correction and consultation on improvement, and without the stress/demand of a one-off end-of-two-year performance, even the weakest students had a better chance of proving what they could do.
Lofty ambition. The problem was that those who could were now able to do it more easily, and those who couldn’t often failed to rise to the bait. The very willingness to persevere and do it again and make it better was often not there – which was one of the reasons such students were not considered academically able in the first place.
Weak literacy going back to the cradle does not magically improve with coursework. But it is not cured by making the course more demanding and returning to the big exam memory test either.
Memory testing probably has even less relevance now than it did 20 years ago. A professor recently complained that his medical students cheerfully do not bother to memorise symptoms and diseases because they, like their patients, can internet-search whatever they need.
Having lamented GCSE requirements apparently shrinking in my lifetime to the point where A*s and As were well within standard reach, rather than indicators of real or even exceptional talent, I’m all in favour of making the exams harder, really discriminating between top candidates.
But CSE used to cater for candidates with different talents, and what will cater for them now?
Hilary Moriarty is national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association and taught English for 25 years.