'Cheating' case highlights rising tide of litigation

21st March 2003 at 00:00
REPORTS on the jailing of primary school head Alan Mercer (pictured right) who forged his pupils' national curriculum test answers made sad reading (TES, March 14). They highlighted the pressures on both schools and pupils to achieve.

The Government, local education authorities, governors, parents and pupils now all expect evidence of pupils' success even where it is unrealistic.

The Mercer case also shows the increasing involvement of the law in education. In the private sector, a pupil's failure to achieve expected grades sends parents off to their lawyers.

The public-sector home-school contract has alerted parents to education's legal dimension. The recent suggestion that schools fine parents for unauthorised pupil absences will have the same effect. Parents may not see themselves as partners of the school, but as separate parties with separate interests (and separate legal representation).

The new pressures on school staff have encouraged some to bend rules. It is now common for teachers to help pupils by commenting on coursework, by being generous with exam time and by using vocal prompts in oral tests.

Often, LEAs act only in flagrant cases.

But all this falls short of crossing the Rubicon of criminality by falsifying the evidence of tests. There is limited evidence of such cheating, perhaps because no single independent body is responsible for the integrity of our system. This being the case, deceptions such as Mercer's may remain undetected.

But the law is not the answer. It is a blunt instrument with many limitations. Its sole beneficiary is the legal profession, and those who use it risk being damaged by it. More effective would be efforts to re-establish trust in our educational professionals through schools being honest to pupils, parents and the community they serve.

Tim Vollans is principal lecturer in law, Coventry Business School, and sits on an educational disciplinary tribunal.

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