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A realm where it didn't pay to cheat

At university one week, my tutor, after setting my weekly essay topic, handed me a newly-published book. "You can borrow that," he said. "It may help." Since I was at the time busy with other things - a campus newspaper, for example - I looked like missing the essay deadline. Then I remembered the book: so brand new that some pages hadn't been cut. My tutor had clearly not read it and, with luck, would forget that it had ever existed.

So I copied out large chunks and comfortably met my deadline.

This shocking story is perhaps less shocking if I add that essay marks did not then count towards the final degree. In any case, degree class didn't matter that much. People got thirds and moved happily on to a variety of flourishing careers; after all, less than 5 per cent of the population had degrees of any kind. Cheating was not "institutionalised", as it is in today's schools according to teachers (see last week's TES), because results were not that important. Now exam and test results - in universities, colleges and schools - are matters of life and death to everybody. They determine not just students' and pupils' prospects but the teachers' as well. Bad test scores can shut a school down. Incentives to bend the rules are enormous and go right to the top. Ministers have a vested interest in the success of their latest wheezes - city academies, for example - and will, at least, present their results in the most favourable light.

So we have, as the teachers claim, a "culture of cheating" with pupils plagiarising material for coursework or getting sympathetic adults to assist and teachers turning a blind eye or even helping out themselves.

In recent years, a similar culture of cheating has been revealed in parts of the private sector: the Enron scandal, for example. The reasons are similar. Just as success in education now depends almost entirely on exam and test results, so the sole criterion of success in Anglo-American capitalism is the share price. Many executives' pay is tied to the company's shares. The temptations to use false accounting and other tricks to inflate the share price were too great to resist. This is not to deny that bad things happen in wholly socialised economies: bribery became endemic in the Soviet Union because, unable to take their custom elsewhere, people could secure the best goods and services only by slipping money to officials.

But Britain used to have - if I dare use the term - a third way. A large sector was protected from the crudest effects of competitive markets. There was a "public realm" where the almost forgotten virtues of honesty, trustworthiness and reliability were valued at least as highly as simple results. It was not confined to activities run or financed by the state: law firms and banks were part of the public realm alongside the civil service, schools, universities and National Health Service hospitals. In their mode of operation and career structures, even firms such as Unilever and ICI were then closer to the civil service than to conventional capitalist companies.

Employees in the public realm knew they had a secure, if moderately remunerated, career path stretching ahead, largely regardless of performance. The only thing short of outright incompetence that could get them sacked was gross misconduct, such as cheating. The potential penalties of cheating, therefore, far outweighed the potential rewards. Now it is the other way round, even in schools. Heads may calculate that they face the sack in any case if their results are bad. So what have they to lose by a bit of cheating to improve results?

Many hoped that new Labour would restore the idea of the public realm, which had been demolished under Margaret Thatcher, and re-invent it for the 21st century. Alas, it has failed even to attempt such a thing.

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