Senior leaders can work to support the delivery of coursework and controlled assessments in order to help raise attainment. Deputy heads Paul Ainsworth and Josephine Smith look into how

You may remember the heady days of the late 1980s, when subjects such as English, enabled students to secure the highest grades at GCSE by submitting a coursework folder as 100% of their curriculum assessment. In 2007, QCA announced changes that have far-reaching implications for the delivery of all GCSE specifications in every school. By September 2009, teacher set and marked coursework will be replaced by controlled assessments.

In line with QCA’s recommendations, controlled assessment regulations have been developed for all GCSE subjects with internal assessment. The controlled assessment regulations are available to download from www.qca.org.uk/qca_15977.aspx and links are offered to examples of controlled assessments that have been piloted in various schools in different subjects.

Controlled assessment
In controlled assessment, the levels of control are specified at three key control points: task setting, task taking and task marking. In addition, the level of control at each of these key control points falls into one of three categories – limited, medium or high. The regulations and definitions of the key control points, and the categories within them, can be found in the glossary of terms at www.qca.org.uk/qca_16010.aspx, a document that can be downloaded as a PDF file.

Your school may be involved in functional skills testing in English, Maths and IT, currently being piloted, and studies suggest online testing, rather than coursework portfolios, are the more likely assessment routes for these skills. With the advent of diplomas, the revised curriculum orders at Key Stage 3 with their emphasis on personal learning and thinking skills (PLTs), the changes to GCSE in 2009, and the increasing pressure on headteachers to oversee year-on-year improvement in examination results, what role can the senior team in your school play in the raising of attainment through coursework?

One of the steepest learning curves for less experienced senior managers is the trust they must place in their middle managers to monitor and influence the delivery of well set assignments across their departments. While the exam boards offer annual advice on task setting and standardisation, it is likely that only one – or maybe two – members of the department attend these meetings. There is a wealth of advice offered at such gatherings and an opportunity to share good practice on coursework assignment setting and internal moderation procedures.

The art of task setting is one that middle managers must share with their departments. In a large English department, for example, good communication is vital to sharing the findings and advice of the exam boards offered at regional standardisation meetings, and senior managers must ensure there is space and time for these conversations to be had in departments. If the culture of department meeting time in your school is one of routine admin tasks, then you need to foster a move towards planned professional development during this time. That may well be sessions led by the head of department, or others, who can share their understanding of coursework assessment objectives and ways they have enabled students to meet these in class.

The advent of controlled conditions work may well tighten up these inconsistencies across departments, as changes to specifications encourage the sharing of good practice and renewed departmental planning. Senior leaders will need to appreciate the time it will take to adapt, or plan and resource, new controlled conditions assignments, as well as the fact that many teachers will feel reluctant to move away from successful, and tried and tested assignments, they feel comfortable with.

Regrettably, the pressure to achieve increasingly impressive results has meant that some teachers may, until now, have been unwilling to take risks with coursework tasks, sticking instead to assignments they know have worked. Some even scaffold and structure student responses so rigidly, in order for students to meet assessment objectives, that many able students are less likely to demonstrate the originality and flair that the highest grades require.

As thinking skills and creativity are encouraged by new curriculum orders, and controlled condition work replaces coursework in its present form, teachers need to be encouraged and supported by senior managers to set tasks that allow all students to demonstrate their potential.

Differing requirementsBy definition, coursework takes many different forms – written outcomes in the form of projects; essays or shorter assignments; artefacts which may be supported by plans and evaluations, presentations and performances. This diversity is reflected in subject-specific requirements for aspects such as task-setting, the conditions in which work should be undertaken, the use of resources and, in some cases, whether work is externally, rather than internally, assessed.

Getting a handle on the different requirements facing students is quite difficult for a senior manager, who is probably familiar with the organisation of coursework in their subject specialism. But, for those who haven’t taught Key Stage 4 or 5 classes for a while, even this understanding may be out of date.

To understand the pressures on students and their subject teachers, and to be able to share the relevant information with parents, in order for them to support the process at home, whole-school systems need to be in place that facilitate an overview of coursework expectations.

This could take the form of a whole-school guide to coursework adapted for different audiences, published on the school VLE in the relevant student and parent areas. It might contain a calendar of assignments in each subject area, along with deadlines for completion, percentage of marks available, and assessment objectives, as well as specific assignment titles and signposts to support materials. Just like students, parents might welcome modelled examples of assessed work at particular grade boundaries, which they can use to gauge the standard needed alongside predicted grades for their child, discussed at academic mentoring meetings or parents’ evenings.

This information might be better communicated at specific parents’ evenings. Many schools now offer workshops for parents organised by leaders of teaching and learning on ‘How to Support Your Child at Key Stage 4’ or ‘Helping your Child to Revise’. These sessions are generally well received by parents and carers, who welcome advice on the difference between ‘helping’ and ‘supporting’ their child’s coursework completion and actually doing it for them.

The advice offered by the Joint Council for Qualifications may well prove helpful.

Minimising pressure on studentsSenior teams also need to have an eye to the setting of assignments and periods of Key Stage 4, where deadlines in different subject areas may bunch, leaving students and parents anxious that extra pressure is being placed on students unnecessarily. A calendar of deadlines shared widely should, at least, highlight the need for good time management and careful planning for students.

The systems which schools have implemented for the teacher delivery of coursework are, of course, only part of the story. It is at the collection stage that middle leaders really become aware of the likely quality of the material produced. We all know of nightmare stories regarding coursework collection, whether in the classroom working directly with a student, or as a middle leaders dealing with one of our teachers. As senior leaders, we need to consider what systems can be implemented to encourage students to complete and hand in coursework on time and to prevent our teaching colleagues from misplacing students’ work.

You may have come across the teacher who says that there is an easy answer to ensuring coursework is handed in on time – you give all the students zero who are a day late submitting work. Then, once students know the school is serious, they will be on time in future. However, it can almost be guaranteed that this teacher may be prepared to use this tactic, but the moment it is one of their favoured students who is late, leeway is given. In reality, however much we may be tempted by this simple structure as senior leaders, we need to be doing everything we can to encourage students, and, hence, maximise their potential.

Stick-and-carrot approach
Many senior leaders recognise that even the most effective middle leaders are grateful for whole-school support in the completion of tasks. A common solution is to use a carrot-and-stick approach to students completing their work. The stick may be the use of a formal coursework catch-up session. One school asks middle leaders at fixed points during Key Stage 4 to identify students who have not handed in tasks. Any student who has fallen behind by two or more pieces, spends the day working in examination conditions under the supervision of senior leaders. Students tend to get something handed in but, unfortunately, the quality is disappointing, as they just write anything to satisfy the wishes of the school.

The carrot approach that some schools use is that the end of Year 11 privilege – a leavers’ prom or end-of-year trip – can only be attended by students who have met their coursework requirements. Students with poor disciplinary records are not generally invited, either.

Another issue arises in the accuracy of the list of uncompleted coursework on the set day. Among the students called together by a senior leader, it is often the case that some students have handed in work at the last minute. Students, understandably, get very agitated with the senior leader when told they are not able to reap the rewards of their last-minute work.

This situation leads on to the process for collection of coursework and its storage. Schools have always left the collection and storage of coursework as the responsibility of the class teacher. However, in today’s litigious society, perhaps we have reached the stage where senior leaders need to have more whole-school systems. Some of us may remember our university days, when assignments were not handed in to lecturers. Instead, a member of administration staff took our work and recorded it as submitted.

Perhaps this is a role student services could take in schools? This would have a number of benefits. Subject areas would have to be organised in publicising when coursework should be completed. Senior leaders and middle leaders would accurately know which students had fallen behind, and there would be no debate between teacher and student over missing coursework.

Administration staff are often far better than teachers at sorting and organising paperwork. The teacher would be presented with a folder of completed tasks, and then be able to spend time assessing the work. Once it was marked, the teacher could return the file back to support staff for storage. That would put an end to middle leaders’ nightmares of a teacher going off on long-term sick and coursework disappearing into thin air, just as the exam board calls for their sample.

Moderation of coursework
Having set and assessed tasks, it will now be down to department heads to ensure consistency of marking, both across the department and in line with exam-board criteria. This can be a time-consuming process – a medium-sized English department would need to request a whole working day and a whole department ‘off timetable’ in order to moderate 150 students’ coursework folders – and still need to work after hours.

It can also be a daunting task for inexperienced middle leaders. Different subject areas will request different levels of support from senior management and, rather unhelpfully, at different times in the school year. Whether you use disaggregated training days for this purpose to build in moderation time, or use your budget flexibly to provide cover for colleagues off- timetable, you will want to minimise disruption to students’ learning, while ensuring departments feel confident about their assessment judgements.

Using consultants, or exam board advisers, is often a way forward, especially in the early stages of introducing an internally assessed course. Don’t ignore your part-time staff, either. They will need to join department sessions and training, and be involved in moderation processes.

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons for the review into coursework procedures and QCA’s move towards controlled conditions work, was the rising number of cases of malpractice identified by the exam boards. The internet has, of course, made it easier for students to access information, which they don’t necessarily acknowledge in assignments.

Many middle managers have experienced a growing trend of plagiarism among students who make use of websites such as www.courseworkbank.co.uk and www.coursework.info that encourage them to post and swap their completed coursework essays or pay £4.99 to access other students’ work. While the sites claim to use anti-plagiarism software, students are still encouraged to use other students’ ideas in their work.

Senior leaders need to offer staff swift and uncompromising support if they identify malpractice by their students. Uncomfortable conversations with parents, and tearful denials of cheating by students, are part of ensuring your school gains a reputation for high standards and good practice among exam board moderators. Of course, it also prevents the more upsetting instance of a student being disqualified from a qualification.

Of course, there are formal procedures to follow. The Joint Council for Qualification advises on malpractice identified by awarding bodies, but advises centres that malpractice discovered prior to the candidate signing the declaration of authentication need not be reported but ‘must be dealt with in accordance with the centre’s internal procedures’.

There is currently research being done into software that identifies online plagiarism, but most instances can be checked simply by a teacher entering a particular sentence from a student’s work into an internet search engine, such as Google, which will quickly reveal the page the student may have copied from. Other instances, such as copying from another student, or excessive support from home, may be less easy to identify, so written proof, or student admission, is helpful in all circumstances.

Staying within the rules
There are many views on the place of coursework in public examinations. Some see it as a licence for, at worst, poor practice and, at best, inflated examination results.

As senior leaders it is our responsibility to ensure that our students achieve their potential, while remaining within the rules made by the examination boards. There is no doubt that, as our middle leaders strive to squeeze every last percentage point of attainment from their classes, we owe it to them to ensure systems are implemented to support and aid them in this process.

Coursework is too important to leave to chance, both in terms of results and school procedures. As we often tell teachers, there are, essentially, two ways to lose your job quickly – by physically interfering with a student, or malpractice concerning coursework. It is our duty to protect our staff and to support our students.

In 2005, a QCA review of GCE/GCSE coursework identified that changes needed to be made to this system of assessment, so that:

  • Teachers were confidently and consistently able to confirm that work they marked was the candidate’s own. It was decided that further guidance on redrafting work, setting coursework tasks and using technology to detect internet plagiarism, was required.
  • Clear guidelines were available to parents to explain the limits of permitted help and advice – this would help address what was felt to be the variations in both areas that was available to candidates.
  • Teachers and centres had better knowledge and understanding of what constituted malpractice.
  • A higher profile was given to malpractice, and the penalties it incurred, to deter deliberate and inadvertent malpractice.
  • Standardisation of marks within centres could be achieved.
  • The purpose and format of feedback from moderators to centres was clarified.

The QCA concluded that, although coursework was widely valued, there was disquiet in some subject communities about aspects of it. A subject-by-subject evaluation of the weighting and value of coursework assessment would permit better-designed coursework in future specifications.

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