If you want to know what plagiarists and others are up to, ask a student. Ian Harris trawls the Internet for their secrets.
As most parents would sooner splash out on cavity-wall insulation than a computer, teenagers have long realised that the most effective whinge to obtain Internet access is saying: "It will help with my schoolwork." With the wealth of useful material on sites such as the BBC's Bitesize, tugging the educational heartstrings can coax reluctant parents on to the information superhighway.
But armed with said computer and modem, your typical junior might spend five minutes casting a cursory click through an essay on Shakespeare before blowing the rest of his or her adolescence flirting in chat-rooms and surfing for pictures of Jennifer Anniston.
Many children are managing to shun the temptations of online gaming just long enough to use the Net to help with homework, coursework and exams - but often not in the way parents might have intended. As more youngsters log on in search of a helping hand, a growing number of websites are dedicating themselves to helping youngsters cheat.
Sites such as SchoolPapers.com and CheatHouse.com offer students a wealth of essays and coursework material and, although the majority of sites are American, the topics covered are relevant to British syllabuses. To aid navigation, many divide their pages into separate categories for GCSE and A-level subjects. Essays available for download cover a huge range of topics, from "Arguments against Abortion" to "The Positive and Negative Aspects of Living in Hawaii".
An Oxford undergratuate recently made the news for handing in a downloaded essay for her finals, proving that when the pressure's on even the best students are prone to digital deception.
Kenneth Sahr is the man behind SchoolSucks.com, the Internet's biggest site for work-shy web-users. With its free database containing thousands of essays, SchoolSucks attracts more than 40,000 visits a day, enabling Kenneth to rake in a tidy sum through advertising and sponsorship. The site's slogan is "Download your Workload", but he's adamant he isn't encouraging students to cheat. "Many of these papers are garbage, actually. I shudder at the thought of spell-checking them," he admits. On the site, Kenneth is careful to remind students that teachers might also be checking it out. He reckons many students pay no attention to the warnings, and some have even begged him to take material offline for a few days to help fool a suspicious teacher. "It's pathetic," he says.
Seasoned Net users realise there's more to the Internet than just the World Wide Web. Andy Paxton, former pupil of Hawkley Hall High School in Wigan, Lancashire, turned to the Internet's chat-rooms when faced with a deadline for his German coursework. Andy, now 17 and playing for Burnley Football Club, enjoyed using the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) network to talk with other football fans. "One evening I found this German lad on IRC and mentioned I had some work to do. We agreed I'd do his creative writing for English if he'd help me out with some of my German homework."
And did his wheeze pay off? "I think he did quite well, but I got a D at GCSE," laments Andy, suggesting there might be life left in the old textbooks yet.
* SOCIOLOGY: A CHOICE OF 40 MODEL ESSAYS
So just how quickly can you download essays? Nuala Byrn, a lower-sixth student and Net novice at Winstanley College, Lancashire, logged on for the first time to see how easy it would be to find material for her sociology essay on alcohol abuse.
"It's due in at the end of this week, so if anybody out there's already written the same essay, I suppose it won't hurt to take a look," she laughs. "I've never really used the Internet before, so it'll be interesting to see if all the stories are true."
After she keyed in the search-string "essays" on Infoseek, the first site thrown up was ezwrite.com. It had a dedicated sociology section with more than 40 essays, "I could probably use half of these at some stage," Nuala said. "I'd have to be pretty desperate to pay pound;23.50 for one though."
So it was back to the search engine and on to the next site: cheathouse.com. "This one looks very professional, but you have to pay." Discovering a "guest" section, Nuala quickly found an essay titled "Alcoholism in the family". Although the spelling left much to be desired, , Nuala had a complete essay to hand after less than three minutes' surfing.
"That's amazing - it's just what I'm after. I wouldn't hand it in but I suppose it'd be useful to read."
Nuala had located her material just in time. Adrian Storm, a technician at Winstanley Colllege, noted the site's URL (unique resource locator) and mumbled something about adding the site to the "banned list" of websites. "We've had no complaints from teachers, but it's not something we'd like to advocate," he said.
Ian Harris is a student at Winstanley College Wigan, and also writes for 'The Guardian' and '.Net' magazine.