A growing "copy and paste" culture that sees pupils turning to online essay banks and other internet sites for help with school work is threatening learning, heads and teachers have warned.
Their comments follow the launch of a new essay website, which stands accused of enabling pupils to cheat. MarkedbyTeachers.com allows pupils to view 170,000 completed essays, coursework and other assignments linked to GCSEs, A levels and the International Baccalaureate (IB) for a charge of #163;4.99 a month or #163;37.50 a year. "Get inspired!" the publicity reads. "Use the new ideas, inspiration and advice to write your own really awesome essays!"
But Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, is sceptical. "The idea that these websites are just used to 'inspire' is a fairly ridiculous one," he said. "Copying and pasting is so easy and there is no learning involved.
"Internet-fuelled plagiarism is a growing problem. It is huge in higher education and it is only a matter of time before it filters down to schools."
One user on the website The Student Room - run by the same company as Marked by Teachers - warned last month that the essay bank was "stocked with the answers to many IB coursework tasks that people are supposed to do for themselves as opposed to paraphrasing what they can read on the net".
When TES raised the point with the International Baccalaureate Organisation, a spokesman admitted that it had "concerns regarding the availability of internet solutions to IB mathematics tasks". As a result, the IB is changing its course from September and using a different model of internal assessment, with students choosing their own topics to write about instead of responding to set tasks, the spokesman said.
But Pete Taylor, director of Marked by Teachers, blamed the IB for "regurgitating" the same tasks in different years. "If they had their house in order there would be no issue with what we are providing," he said. Mr Taylor added that his website was of "great educational benefit" as a research tool and did not encourage copying because all content was registered with the online anti- plagiarism service Turnitin. But although most universities and all exam boards have access to Turnitin, only about 100 schools currently use the service.
Teachers' leaders are concerned that even if no actual copying is involved, using essay banks as a resource bypasses important elements of learning, such as researching original material and pupils forming their own views.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL education union, said: "An essay is supposed to be your way of way of understanding an issue. But if you go to an essay that has already been written out for you then you have not done that."
Mr Taylor said his website provided a valuable aid because its essays were accompanied by "formative feedback" from real teachers. But he also revealed that this was only the case with about 600 of the 170,000 pieces of work.
The site claims that it is "trusted by education bodies across the UK". But Mr Taylor could not name any examples and admitted that "nobody is particularly endorsing it as such".
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "We would advise students to use (online essay banks) very cautiously because there is no guarantee of the quality. Use them sensibly and don't try to copy things parrot fashion because apart from the fact that it is cheating, you will not understand the subject."