Barking & Dagenham College 1

Innovation in GCSE English – An Approach to Diagnostic Assessment

About the college

bdcBarking and Dagenham College is a Further Education provider situated in the north east of London and has several campuses across multiple sites in Romford and Barking. The college has over 5,000 students enrolled on a range of part-time and full-time courses, ranging from Entry 3 to Level 3 and above. Students study on vocational programmes that include Childcare, 3D Design, Motor Vehicle, ICT, Plumbing, Business and Administration, Sports and many other disciplines. Their studies are, of course, complemented by also working towards qualifications in maths and English.

The GCSE English cohort has grown considerably in the last three years, initially comprising a small number of part-time adult learners and, this academic year, consisting of over 300 full-time vocational and part-time students. Classes of approximately 15-20 students are delivered by subject specialists in well-equipped rooms that have computer access. Viability for GCSE English study is determined at the start of the academic year through consideration of a student’s recognised prior learning and an initial assessment which is administered by the teaching staff.

The context

The GCSE English team at Barking and Dagenham College report feeling a ‘distrust’ of the current diagnostic systems used by the college on the grounds that the extended writing skills of students are not assessed. This feeling has also been validated by action research conducted by college tutors.   The English team at the college felt strongly that, as writing is such a critical element of the GCSE English programme, this inadequacy should be addressed. Furthermore, they felt that current systems could have a damaging or demotivating effect on students.

With these things in mind, they set about developing a new and more effective alternative which could better determine their students’ suitability and viability for studying GCSE English.

The approach

Their first steps involved engaging students in writing by using the following ‘stimulus board’ which is taken from an Australian post-16 writing assessment known as the QCS (Queensland Core Skills) test.

BDC11Using this stimulus board of thematically related images (in this instance the focus is ‘flight’) students were invited to compose a piece of writing in a style and form they felt comfortable with, whether it be a creative narrative, an article, a transcript, a speech, a review or some other form. There was no prescribed question; rather the students were offered a platform to show what they could write through a form in which they felt comfortable. The team found the students’ response to be a great deal more helpful than the current models of initial and diagnostic assessment.

Appendix A (below) contains a link to a further example of a stimulus board the GCSE English team have used, along with examples of the resulting student writing.

The discovery of this assessment style, and particularly the role of stimulus material, influenced the English team’s thinking greatly and they have undertaken further developmental work on this assessment alternative. The key focus of this work has been student engagement and humanising the assessment process. It is recognised, however, that the task poses a significant marking burden as each piece of writing will need to be marked by tutors.

With this in mind, the team gained pre-release access to a ‘writing assessment’ tool developed by Lieve De Wachter of Lueven University in Belgium which, it is hoped, will aid the reviewing of the vast numbers of written pieces which students are expected to submit in September of this year.


The image above shows how the text from a student’s work can be ‘pasted’ into the tool and subsequently analysed. In this instance, all pronouns have been identified. Meta-analysis of this nature allows for the tutor to identify trends in a student’s writing that may be effective or in need of developing.

Similarly, this image shows linking words and phrases. Again, trends can be identified and analysis of the writing can be conducted in a more consistent and streamlined manner.


The next image shows an analysis of sentence and paragraph length. Trends in the writing are highlighted for the tutor and student to see when reviewing.


Impact and success factors

The college is very much still in the formative stages of developing their alternative diagnostic process. It is predicted that the stimulus approach, coupled with the tool for analysis, will offer a far more viable , and student ‘friendly’, means of assessing a students’ potential and suitability for GCSE English. Furthermore, the team believe that early indications already suggest it will provide a more robust diagnostic result for students and tutors alike which will, in turn, ensure that personalised learning is in place right from the beginning of their programme.

Appendix A





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