Case study: Dealing with 'cheats'

26th November 2004 at 00:00
I've taught English since the days of 100 per cent coursework in 1989, so I have seen all kinds of "cheating". The GCSE specification states "work... must be solely that of the candidate", but often that is not the reality.

In classrooms and homes across the UK many pupils receive extra "help".

This can take many forms, including use of online essay banks and obliging teachers doing pupils' coursework.

Some pupils brazenly copy their work from the internet, yet these are still a relative minority. But as more and more pupils gain access to the internet and become more proficient at cutting and pasting, the problem will grow.

I recall a pupil some years ago handing in a piece on Macbeth that bore no relation to the task set. After being challenged, the pupil produced a second piece which, although a little more relevant, still did not answer the question. Ever since, when marking coursework, I have become much more vigilant.

Cheating is not new. Help from adults, other pupils or books has always been available. What is different today is the ease with which it can be done using the internet, with some sites even producing coursework to order.

Parents also help in a variety of ways: doing the work, paying for extra lessons where tutors will often help directly with a piece of coursework, or paying for access to these essay banks. This is done with the best of intentions but does nothing to improve the validity of the coursework system.

Even teachers can be over-accommodating with coursework. In the early days of my teaching career I recollect being horrified to discover a head of department armed with a bottle of correction fluid going through work to be sent off for moderating. I've also seen teachers submitting the typed work of other pupils or, in an extreme case, composing and typing up work for a pupil. More common is the practice of teachers giving extremely detailed essay plans that require pupils to do barely more than copy out.

In many cases it is fairly easy for a teacher to spot plagiarised work: for example, pupils who suddenly use complex sentence structures or highly advanced language, or give inappropriate answers. On one occasion, I discovered when moderating coursework on Sherlock Holmes, the language used was an A* standard whereas previous coursework was of a D grade. What is so surprising is the shock on a pupil's face when challenged over an obviously plagiarised piece of work.

Conversely, there are also many pupils who are unaware they are doing anything wrong. They use the internet for information and, due to a lack in knowledge and understanding of the subject, copy out sections. Many of our pupils also have poor time-management skills and resort to the internet for last-minute assistance.

So what can the poor teacher do? Plagiarism can be difficult to prove. As yet I have never traced a piece of plagiarised work on the internet. But help is available, as several new sites are offering to run searches, for a fee. So, maybe that is the future; schools having to subscribe to such sites. But for many teachers, acceptance is the answer. We live in a climate that dictates it is always the teacher's fault, and teachers are made to feel guilty if their pupils don't get certain grades. Add stress, too much paperwork, targets and the relief at getting a piece of coursework handed in. After all, challenging pupils and re-marking takes up time the teacher doesn't have.

There are several possible solutions. An obvious one would be to return to exams with no coursework. But the controversy over exam marking this summer shows that is not the answer. Others include reducing the amount of coursework, making it more specific and distinctive, and difficult to piece together using internet resources. The submitting of drafts, oral interviews with pupils and completion of work under supervision are other possible options. Teaching pupils how to use the internet, to take notes, organise their work and use thinking skills are all important.

But no system is foolproof. Teachers are professionals and the majority act appropriately. What must be stopped is the pressure on them to further improve results to meet the demands of league tables, the threat of inspections and performance-linked pay.

Viv Wild is head of English at a large secondary school in East Anglia

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