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Education prior to university: is the system fit for purpose?

3rd September 2012

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Saturday’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4 included amongst its items on current affairs the growing furore over whether the system used to assess pupils at GCSE and A-level is in need of an overhaul.

Speaking against the present modular and part-coursework system, former Chief Inspector of Schools in England, Sir Chris Woodhead, described it as “not fit for purpose” and “so complicated that no-one is able to understand it.” He called on Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, to announce to the House of Commons on Monday that the system had to go, suggesting that it be replaced with exams taken at the end of each course.

Woodhead also went a step further by calling for a reversion to a “simple[r]” system in which set percentages of examinees received each grade, thereby halting the so-called ‘grade-inflation’ that has sparked controversy year after year – most notably in 2012 by its conspicuous absence.

Today’s students, it would seem, are blighted by an impossible catch-22 situation, in which their achievements – as indicated by increasingly higher grade attainments - are depreciated by claims of the ‘dumbing down’ of curricula, yet when this trend is halted there are accusations of disparity and unfairness across the system. Undoubtedly there is a degree of hypocrisy at work here, from which the aforementioned furore over the assessment system as it currently operates has resulted. Yet should this system be scrapped entirely?

This call for GCSE and A-Level courses to culminate in single, terminal examinations overlooks the reasons why the current system of modular exams and coursework was adopted in the first place. Dispersing assessment throughout a course reduces the risk of a student being unfairly disadvantaged by circumstances beyond their control which result in a performance not representative of the student’s actual capabilities. Modular assessments reduce the pressure and stress on any one particular day, whilst the nature of exams – their formality and almost ceremonial significance - means that the impetus to focus and perform well still remains.

Though the chance to retake modules has undoubtedly been abused by some and taken for granted by others (the “it doesn’t matter that I haven’t revised ‘cause I can retake in the summer” attitude), the principle of having this opportunity is vital for those who, for whatever reason, are unable to do themselves justice during a single, highly-pressurised window of opportunity. This flexibility, while permissible, may be of benefit to students even without ever being utilised. Simply knowing that a single paper is not the end of the line should things go awry may act as a talisman against the debilitating anxiety and stress to which some students are prone. It is for their benefit that modular examinations and coursework are not to be dismissed outright.

Just as we do not all optimally process and understand information in the same way - to some, mind-maps are the solution to all the world’s ills, whilst others would burn them on a bonfire – neither do we all best demonstrate our abilities under the same conditions. This is the premise upon which the argument in favour of coursework assessment is founded, since students who do not cope well under pressure, and whose memories may suffer under stress, are at a disadvantage to those for whom pressure is a spur to succeed.

There is no panacea-policy to remedy the debate over the alleged failings of the current system. Yet the modular structure should not be so readily written off when instead the way it is implemented could be more tightly regulated. Under any system – modular, terminal or otherwise – there will always be contestations, accusations of unfair treatment or discrepancies in the marking uniformity, and shattered ambitions. Those who decry coursework for its susceptibility to be plagiarised via the internet must realise that no matter how stringent anti-cheating measures are, there will always be ways found to pervert the system by those who wish to do so. Downloading coursework is the twenty-first century equivalent to writing formulae on the back of your hand before entering the exam hall.

Whilst Woodhead is right in calling for an overhaul of assessment procedures, he is wrong in locating the source of fault in the mechanisms of the system, rather than in those who operate it. And of course, whatever the outcome of this debate, it will come too late for those affected in August 2012.

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