All teachers know that the most interesting lessons can come from unpromising topics. Take the classes I gave a short while ago on examination revision. My starting point was last term's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) report on plagiarism and cheating in GCSE and A-level coursework.
How about this, I asked my students. In surveys, 63 per cent of parents admitted helping children with GCSE coursework. At A-level, 1 per cent admitted drafting the writing; for GCSE, it was 5 per cent.
My students' reaction? Scarcely any, unless you count some knowing grins and a few sniggers - hardly the cries of indignation or condemnation I'd expected.
All right then, I said, let's be totally honest. In confidence: how many of you have either had help with exam coursework or know of someone who has?
Reluctantly at first, then with surprising openness, my students told of private tutors who had either helped with coursework or had done the job altogether. Of parents, relatives or family friends who had given them varying degrees of help. ("My dad works with computers. He did all my electronics coursework"; "I got help with my art from my mum's boyfriend.
He's got an art and design degree.") Of students who knew of someone who had submitted their elder brother or sister's coursework from a couple of years before. And of students who had copied someone else's coursework.
Nor did teachers get especially high marks for honesty. "My teacher just gave the class detailed instructions on how to do the coursework and let us get on with it," reported one. "Because my RE coursework was late, my teacher actually did it for me," chortled another. One girl pointed out that her teacher had practically dictated the GCSE coursework content because she was scared her class wouldn't do as well as others in the school. Most disturbing of all was another girl's account of her maths coursework being overmarked by a teacher with no more than GCSE maths himself. To save embarrassment, when her work was requested for moderation by the exam board, the school's head of maths brought her paper up to scratch.
But what about the accreditation certificate, the form that students sign to say that the work is their own? Mine scoffed at the notion that it guaranteed honesty: "Nah, you just sign it and give it in." And yes, some students did filch material from the internet, but not as systematically as one might suspect.
"I copied loads from the web, but my teacher caught me and made me do it again," was the only significant admission.
The students' stories shocked me. Around 15 to 20 per cent of them had admitted either to being involved in malpractice of one sort or another, or knowing someone who had. True, my rough and ready sampling was not necessarily representative. And yes, some of them might have been guilty of exaggeration or concealment. But the scoundrel count in my classes is generally low and I'm more inclined to believe them than not. Which means that the degree and nature of cheating could be far more of a problem than recent surveys suggest.
Dennis Opposs, head of exams and testing at the QCA, says one of the issues is what constitutes cheating: "There's a grey area in the middle where people disagree whether something is right or wrong. We are trying to clarify the rules."
In 2004 there were 3573 documented cases of malpractice. "We don't have evidence that there are huge numbers of incidents going undetected. So the figures we have give an indication of the scale of the issue," he says.
But what about cases such as my students', all of which went undetected?
"Well, that's where our report has a whole series of different possibilities," says Mr Opposs. "How teachers might check on authenticity might be part of it."
Could it not be that some teachers are themselves part of the problem?
"It may be difficult to detect, but the penalties are extremely serious.
Our expectation is that the awarding bodies will come down heavily on them.
The QCA will be speaking to the General Teaching Council about this."
Dennis Opposs believes that much of the problem is because teachers and parents alike are unsure as to how far they might fairly help students. Sue Kirkham, president of The Association of School and College Leaders (formerly the Secondary Heads Association) and chair of a task force set up to examine the problem, agrees.
"There's a lot of confusion at the moment about what is allowable and what isn't," she says, pointing to different regulations for different subjects from different boards. "This situation makes it difficult to produce general guidance for teachers. Even though there is some good guidance available on the Joint Council for Qualifications website, there's evidence that it doesn't get to all the teachers who need it. This is one of the issues we're looking into."
Faulty communication is one thing, but abuse of the system by teachers is another.
"The number of cases that the awarding bodies deal with is quite small,"
says Sue Kirkham, "but they don't see all cases because they are dealt with by centres initially - and the information doesn't necessarily go to the awarding bodies."
When I put the matter to the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), the body that represents such big examination boards as AQA, OCR and Edexcel, I was referred to the coursework regulations on the JCQ website. So I turned to Jean Underwood, professor of psychology at Nottingham Trent university, an expert on internet plagiarism who has been asked by the QCA to advise on the issue. She feels that it can be controlled through detection software packages, but is best countered through education, advice and systematic monitoring. Parents and teachers who use the internet to help their children are often more over-eager than deliberately dishonest, she thinks, and should be advised on the limits to be observed.
Parents should also be helped to realise that, in the long run, too much help can do their children a disservice: "We have to convince parents that it's not just about getting the right mark, but that it's good for their children to sweat a bit. If they are made to sweat and really think at GCSE and A-level, they will do better when they get into the next stage of education."
Teachers, too, should spruce up their act. "If we set assignments that make it easy for students to cheat, then it's partly our fault. We teachers have to be smarter. You can't just do the same work, year in and year out.
Teachers have to think of different ways of actually posing the question."
Professor Underwood says that the QCA is working on activities for parents that will show what kinds of help are acceptable. This, she says, is only a first step: "The authority has a lot more thinking to do."
Indeed it has. As many teachers recognise and my students' stories indicate, cheating at coursework is far more of a problem than is officially acknowledged. That, surely, is because the problem has no simple solution. The abolition of coursework in favour of timed examinations would disadvantage those who neither cheat nor cope too well with one-off exams.
Coursework done under controlled conditions would consume vast amounts of teaching time. Identifying and investigating dishonest teachers would be costly, complex and time-consuming.
And it is hard to blame those parents who, by whatever means, knowingly give their children more help than they should. Examination success means as near a guarantee of a secure future as can be had. Most parents recognise this and sometimes use their economic and intellectual resources to give their kids a leg-up. Perhaps all parents should encourage their children to sweat, as Professor Underwood thinks. Honestly, though,with such high stakes, would you?
Colin Slater is a pseudonym
COURSEWORK UNDER SCRUTINY
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has launched three separate reviews of GCSE and A-Level coursework.
* A task force chaired by Sue Kirkham, president of the Association of School and College Leaders (formerly SHA), is to report this month on how arrangements for authenticating coursework can be strengthened.
* Professor Jean Underwood of Nottingham Trent university is to advise on a detection strategy to combat internet plagiarism
* Ken Boston, chief executive of the QCA, will report to the Secertary of State for Education this spring on the future of coursework in every subject.