Lessons of coursework

9th December 2005 at 00:00
What is it with the nanny state? One minute it's fine to smoke, the next it's not. It wasn't good to drink, but now we can do it all night. The political weathervane blows from liberal enlightenment to crackdown and back again. I can't keep up.

So it is with the Great Coursework Debate. One minute it's all exams, the next all coursework. And it's not just the politicians and the media who blow hot and cold - we teachers find it hard to agree as well. There's no consensus across subjects, debate in the workroom rages: "Make the buggers learn the hard way, the way we had to!"

Yet it seems that the pressure of coursework is just too much for some. A recent survey by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority revealed a 9 per cent rise in pupils caught cheating with their coursework. I can't quite believe it took the QCA two years to research what we in classrooms already knew. Guess who's to blame? Actually, no, for once it's not us teachers. It's the internet. No longer is it to be viewed as a powerful aid to learning but as a tool spawning a new generation of cheaters. No more writing the answers in ballpoint up your arm. This is sophisticated copying.

Or maybe not. Take Kelly's Romeo and Juliet essay, for example. The proud yet sly tone in her voice should have alerted me as she rummaged in her Louis Vuitton graffiti bag for the work. Given that her previous efforts had been scraps of paper bearing the words "I luv Gazza" and "Chelsea 4 eva", the six pages of neat type seemed a touch suspicious.

She was rumbled by the first sentence. It used verbose language neatly punctuated in a manner clearly at odds with her usual Vicky Pollard street-slang style. It was a blinding answer, but not to the question I had set - and not by Kelly. A quick check on Google soon revealed her source.

Kelly was livid. She'd paid good money for that essay. As indeed had Alicia - to Kelly. Unfortunately for Alicia, she forgot to change the name at the top of her essay and handed it in with "Kelly Lewis" typed boldly on the top, not "Alicia Hester". Sophisticated? Hardly.

Parents, too, are partly to blame for the rise in cheating, with one in 20 admitting drafting some of their children's GCSE essays, according to the QCA. It's a thin line between being helpful and encouraging and devious malpractice at the kitchen table. And who can blame them? It's not enough these days to pass, is it? Every child needs a clutch of A*s.

And yet who is to say what is plagiarism and what isn't? We are all at it to a degree, aren't we? Top designers are routinely copied in the high street and Madonna seems to have plundered Abba for her latest album.

Shakespeare lifted most of his historical plots from Holinshed. Even T.S.

Eliot said that immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. Verbal kleptomania is rife. Nothing is ever really new. Maybe all writing and all ideas are simply an echo of that which has gone before. As for Tony Blair and education, can anyone remind me of any truly original ideas he's had under New Labour's charm offensive?

James has been struggling to write his A-level coursework essay. It's meant to be a piece of erotica written by a male describing female desire. It might have been a struggle but it was a short one - all over in three lines. One minute she's scanning his bananas at her checkout, the next she's post-orgasmic and handing him his debit card. There goes my idea of reading it aloud in the tearoom to raise spirits and give cheap thrills.

Alan's is even worse. Taking the concept of concise a bit too far, he handed in one line summing up the character of King Lear: "Lear is a tit."

Harsh but fair. No chance of that being plagiarised.

Last May there was the usual crisis in the department at the realisation that some pupils just didn't have a coursework folder to submit. They hadn't been in enough lessons or weren't able to sit still long enough to write anything resembling an essay. We called their bluff and announced a school trip. In they flocked like unsuspecting sheep. Once in the hall and sitting meekly at their desks we guarded the doors and refused to let them leave until every missing piece was written. Brutal yet effective.

Actually the term essay implies work of a quality that James's certainly isn't. For An Inspector Calls he draws a picture, then throws a strop when I explain he was meant to write with the pen. Rickesh is stoned, hence a garbled stream of consciousness lacking in punctuation.

But, as ever, there are consolations. Back home, I gaze at my new painting.

It's a vibrant, colourful landscape in the style of Turner, a castle in the distance, bewitching, drawing you in. Rahul painted it for his coursework.

Inspired or plagiarised? Who cares? It's fabulous. There are some things technology cannot fake.

Julie Greenhough teaches at a London boys' school

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