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The GCSE Externally Set Assignment

The GCSE Externally Set Assignment is one of the most creative independent activities students undertake in their school life. What's more, it is extremely demanding and difficult. Not only are students expected to produce a body of work entirely on their own, it must be both original and meet a wide set of examination objectives. Worth 40% of the overall grade, the assignment is spread across many weeks and months. Students must display their ideas to starting points set out in the controlled assignment question paper, then develop their idea using observational drawing, written annotation, experimentation with media, and use of visual sources. 

Success in the assignment depends on being able to work independently outside of typical school hours at a time when students are revising for other examinations. Ideally, all students will be prepared for this assignment by the time they reach the Spring Term of Year 11. They should be able to read and understand the questions in the first instance. This isn't as easy as it sounds. Literacy levels for this paper are around 16 - 18 years, making it well above the reading ages of many students at this stage. In addition to this, the sheer workload of producing page after page of drawings, paintings, sketchbook pages, models, maquettes, written notes and developmental ideas without the support of a teacher, illustrates just how hard it is. 

This students support guide aims to provide clear, concise instruction for students during this assignment. It is written within the abilities of a 13 year-old reader and is broken down into clear stages for ease of use. I think it can be covered in a minimum of 40 hours: 4 hours for the planning stage, 10 each for observation & experimentation, 8 for artist sources, and 4 each for refinement and practice. Of course, higher grades will require many more hours than this!

Finally, I haven't indicated the time frames for coverage of the Assessment Objectives because I think schools will all have their own agenda. I'd only advise to try to give equal weighting to all of them. 

GCSE Externally Set Assignment Student Support

The following text is simply my own advice and does not represent official guidance for the Externally Set Assignment. Please refer to your exam board's official support materials for exact information. 


Stage One - Read the Question

  • Read the question again.

  • Make sure you understand what the words mean and what you are being asked to do.

  • Discuss it with people in your group to bounce ideas off each other. If someone else has an idea you like, think about how you could do it in your own way. Don’t copy.


Stage Two- Plan it out

  • How long do you have to do this project?

  • In total, how many hours will you spend on it?

  • What are the different stages you need to produce evidence for?

  • How much work will you need to do for them?

  • How long does it take you to produce work? (An A4 drawing, an A3 painting?)

  • Will your work rate enable you to produce the work you need?


Note: You can work on the first three assessment objectives in any order you wish, and they often feed into each other anyway.


Assessment Objective 1 (part 1) Develop Initial ideas

  • Use a dictionary & a thesaurus to find other meanings of the themes.

  • Make connections with what you know about this question

  • Make connections to things you enjoy.

  • Make connections to things you can do.

  • Search for ideas on high-quality art websites such as Tate, Google Arts, or Art UK

  • Find out how this theme has been used before in the media; on film, TV, music, and animated films.


Assessment Objective 1 (part 2) Investigate Sources

  • Show evidence of using high-quality sources to influence you.

  • Sources are: things you see in the media, in films, TV, music, books, internet, news, poetry, lyrics. (But only use high-quality sources from good sites).


Use your sources to:

  • Get ideas and inspiration

  • Learn skills & techniques from

  • Understand the meaning behind the source, then re-apply it in your own style


Assessment Objective 2 Explore & Experiment

Things you might do:

  • Printing, collage, painting, drawing, digital, 3D sculpture, clay, wire, wool, fabrics…

  • Play with layout. Crop, zoom, use a grid, change the focal point.

  • Simplify & remove things or make it more complex.

  • Play with colour. Change colours, use hot & cold colours.

  • Play with different types of line

  • Play with texture

  • Apply Pattern


Assessment Objective 3 Observe & Record

  • Choose some subjects that are relevant to the question.

  • Draw from direct observation or from photos.

  • Draw them in different ways using different materials: e.g. pencil, pen & ink, pastels, crayons, markers, paint etc. and on different papers.

  • Take photos of your subject from different angles. Add filters, edit, crop…

  • Do not copy exactly what you see. Try to do your version of things.


Assessment Objective 4 Refine your idea

  • Develop your idea now in light of things you have learned from your research.

  • You might add extra elements to make it more complex or remove some things to simplify it.

  • You might move things around, change the colours or add texture.

  • Sometimes, we can swap more obvious things for ones that are mysterious or symbolic.


Assessment Objective 4 Practice

  • You should practice your final idea, perhaps on a smaller scale, so you can iron out any problems you may have.

  • You might need to practice the skills you’ll need for your idea a little more.

  • Look back to your artists research to see how they did things and learn from them.


Assessment Objective 4 Make the Final Piece

  • This is your Controlled Assignment, which is done under exam conditions, usually over two full day sessions.

  • You’ll need to be fully prepared for it, as you can’t get help from your teacher.

  • Just try to relax and do your best work. That’s all you can do!

  • Good luck!


Paul Carney Paul is a nationally recognised art & design consultant having delivered specialist art CPD in schools, colleges, galleries, and Universities across the UK and for the UK’s leading training providers. He is a former Council member for the NSEAD, which means he is involved in national art education policy issues.Paul is a published author of two books: Drawing for Science, Invention and Discovery and his latest book Drawing to learn anything. He is also a practicing professional artist and designer. Paul runs his highly successful art website: that provides high quality teaching resources and advice to teachers around the world. He has over twenty years teaching experience at Primary, Secondary and post-16 levels of education, is an Advanced Skills Teacher, ex-Subject Leader for Art and was a member of the DfE Expert Advisory Group for Art and Design. In addition to this he was a member of the NSEAD Curriculum Writing Group that wrote the 'Framework for Progression, Planning for Learning, Assessment, Recording and Reporting 2014.’ 

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