Killing coursework is a dangerous move


While national newspapers get overly excited about the possible renaming of GCSEs, the complete loss of coursework and the implications of this for students' learning is not being debated, says SecEd editor Pete Henshaw.

Speculation was rife as SecEd went to press earlier this week over the proposed changes to GCSE qualifications and examinations in England.

The national press rumour mill was in full swing after a report in The Times had suggested that the consultation by exams watchdog Ofqual would propose changing the name of the qualification. It said that “I levels” had been discussed as one option, with the “I” standing for Intermediate.

Headline writers got very, very excited about this.

However, despite the reams of newsprint dedicated to the story, when the consultation emerged on Tuesday (June 11) no such name change was suggested.

The press did get something right. Another proposal about which journalists had gotten equally excited – the scrapping of lettered grading and a move to numbers instead (1 to 8 with 8 being the highest).

Oh and by the way, for anyone who cares about genuine educational issues, or in case you missed it, Ofqual's consultation is the first step towards the complete removal of coursework from all subjects except science.

Once again, I feel the debate in the national media has centred on the facile and irrelevant at the expense of meaningful discussions on issues that are hugely important.

Whether GCSEs are to be renamed or not I don’t care. If our system is to move so far away from the structure of GCSEs in Wales and Northern Ireland then it actually makes sense. And numbers instead of letters is novel and practical, but again not really important.

I do care, though, about a fundamental change to the way we assess thousands of students as they study towards their qualifications. The removal of coursework, or controlled assessment, from all subjects (except science) I fear will be a devastating blow to the potential achievement and outcomes of many students. But no real discussion has been had about this.

Coursework is important to many subjects – not just for understanding key theories and aspects of the subject, but for engaging and engendering pupils' enthusiasm and love of those subjects. Controlled assessment may have its flaws as a process, but that is no reason to scrap coursework altogether. 

The Ofqual consultation, which is to run over the summer, proposes the move to end-of-course terminal examination in all subjects, and sets out its view that GCSE grades should be based on written examinations and not coursework or practicals, with the one exception of science.

This consultation covers English, maths, the sciences, history and geography, but reforms to other subjects will follow and Ofqual says that throughout all the GCSE reforms, "non-exam assessment should only be used when it is the only valid way to assess essential elements of the subject". It adds that "where subject content can be validly assessed by written exams, such exams set and marked by exam boards should be the default method of assessment". So the writing is on the wall.

Take just one example. In geography, a subject for which fieldwork skills are vital, we will have written, end-of-course examinations to assess practical fieldwork ability! The 25 per cent controlled assessment will be scrapped and students will have to demonstrate their practical abilities in an exam hall.

In history, the 25 per cent controlled assessment is also up for the chop. This is despite Ofqual stating in its consultation: "We found that the current controlled assessment encourages students to demonstrate historical enquiry skills in ways that would not be possible in a written exam." But it is still proposing that all assessment should be by written examination.

It is no surprise given Michael Gove's stated intentions for curriculum and examination reform, and these themes are echoed in the Department for Education consultation on reformed GCSE content which has also been published this week.

All this comes not long after proposals from Ofqual to remove speaking and listening skills from counting towards English GCSE grades – this at a time when almost any employer you can find is screaming for a focus on communication skills (see SecEd’s report on this at

You couldn’t make it up and it alarms and depresses me in equal measure. And given the geography proposal above, I dread to think what reforms for other subjects, such as design and technology or music, will look like when they emerge.

Many education commentators are rightly expressing their concerns. The sensible Russell Hobby of the National Association of Head Teachers has called for the balance between coursework and exams to be “based on the skills we value in each subject, not a blanket approach”. 

The National Union of Teachers has emphasised that this kind of assessment is not what happens at university – and in this context the reforms certainly appear illogical. General secretary Christine Blower said: “Real-life is not about what you can do in two or three hours at the end of a two-year process.”

The timescale is also, once again, dangerously fast. The changes for these core subjects are to be implemented from 2015 (for first examinations in 2017). Implementing policy change at break-neck speed is a recurring theme with the coalition and this will once again push the system to its limits.

While the DfE and Ofqual proposals are out on "consultation", as with all consultations under the current regime I am not confident anything will change as a result of the outcry over coursework. It seems certain to me that coursework as we know it is doomed.

Terminal examinations have a role in our system, but we surely need to recognise that they bear no resemblance to working life, instil none of the skills of the workplace that our students need, and that some of our young people simply cannot perform at their best under those abnormal conditions.

This proposal, as with so many other reforms of the examination system, ignores the fact that our students all learn in different ways. It will disadvantage any student who struggles with traditional approaches to academic learning. It will also prevent many pupils from developing a true love of their subject by experiencing it in a practical and real-life environment.

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