Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Helen James

I have heard from my teachers’ network that the House of Commons is conducting an investigation into the administration of examinations for 15-19 year olds, and is interested in hearing the views of professionals in the field. I would like to submit my views to this inquiry.

I work as a private tutor to pupils of secondary age as well as adults, in the subject of modern foreign languages, specifically French and German. These pupils are taking GCSEs or GCEs through mainstream or independent secondary schools, or via adult education, and are seeking to improve their skills and their chances of succeeding at examination by hiring a private tutor.

Since the introduction of controlled assessment as a tool for examining writing in MFL, my position as a private tutor has become considerably more difficult, and I am less able to teach well and improve the skills of my pupils. The reason for this is as follows.

1. Revised arrangements for Controlled Assessment (MFL): Summary

(a)The Controlled Assessment of writing is arranged into Stage 1, Stage 2 and Stage 3. Stage 1 is general preparation around the topic in question and can last an unspecified amount of time. The teacher can conduct whatever activities are necessary to teach the vocabulary and grammar structures required.

(b)Stage 2 is the period of pupil preparation, which lasts up to six classroom hours. At the start of this stage the teacher gives the pupils the writing stimulus, and after this point may not actively teach the pupils, merely restricting input to “clarifying the requirements of the task”. The pupil must prepare using their own resources, text books, dictionary, exercise books, or collaboration with other pupils. At no point during this period may the teacher correct or improve the understanding of the pupil. Stage 3 then follows on directly, where the pupil writes the assessment under controlled conditions with access only to their own notes made without teacher assistance.

2. The problem is that my pupils wish to improve during their preparation stage, however are prohibited from asking questions, or having such questions answered, by teachers at their school.

3. However, such pupils are perfectly well able to turn to an external tutor, who has no contract with the school, and is not bound by any prohibition on teaching imposed by the requirements of the GCSE arrangements at that school. In this way, the pupil who is financially better off and able to hire such external help is at an advantage over other pupils. While this may be generally true in many ways, this is grossly unfair when it touches directly on the conduct of assessments.

4. The quandary can be summed up thusly; although the school/examining centre may wish to impose restrictions on the relative independence of the pupils' learning activities during the Stage 2 period, once the pupil leaves the school premises, the school ceases to have any effective control or supervision of that pupil or their learning activities. To construct a controlled assessment arrangement, in which such control/supervision is implied, is spurious, misguided, and prone to dishonesty and unfairness.

5. In summary, during Stage 2, which can be as long as two weeks:

Candidates can create, rehearse and internalise errors, as they have no teacher feedback on their work; which disadvantages their learning

With some exam boards, regulations state that learning materials may not be taken home during Stage 2, and therefore keen candidates are not able to put more time into learning, therefore restricting them rather than advancing them in their academic progress

Conversely, with other boards, learning materials are allowed to leave the classroom, creating an uneven playing field where candidates from different schools have different learning and examining conditions

Candidates can choose to do extra work at home during Stage 2 by hiring private tutors, or working with native speakers within their extended family or friendship circle, to clarify any misunderstandings or correct errors. Therefore candidates who are financially better off and able to hire private tutors are advantaged in the assessment process.

6. Some teachers have dealt with these problems by effectively removing Stage 2 from their arrangements. Others continue to use this period as described in the guidelines. Again this results in an uneven inconsistent practice across the country.

7. The removal of a terminal examination for writing in MFL has made it extremely difficult logistically to accommodate native or near-native speakers who wish to gain a qualification in their mother or second language without attending class. Moreover, adult education centres also struggle to fit in controlled assessments within their intensive year-long evening courses; where before the terminal examination would have been a straightforward, time-efficient examining choice. While there is an iGCSE available in French with a terminal written exam, it is (a) of a different (more demanding) academic standard and (b) not matched by an equivalent accredited examination in German.

8. In these views I am supported by a large number of teachers at schools across the country, as evidenced by discussions on our national teachers' forum. While opinion is divided on whether a return to terminal writing examination would constitute an improvement, almost all agree that the reinstatement of choice between either CA or terminal exam would be helpful.

November 2011

Prepared 2nd July 2012