Schools get expert help to outwit cheats

20th March 2009 at 00:00
And as watchdog report reveals extent of copying, all exam boards will now have access to plagiarism-detection software

Anti-plagiarism experts are being brought in to work with schools to counter the growing risk of cheating in sixth forms posed by the internet copy-and-paste culture.

A company with experience of tackling the problem in further and higher education has been asked by Ofqual, the exams watchdog, to provide secondary teachers with guidance on preventing plagiarism.

The news came as the exams regulator this week published a report revealing that more than a quarter of all cases of candidate malpractice in A-levels and GCSEs last summer were for plagiarism, failure to acknowledge sources, copying from other candidates or collusion.

The TES has also learnt that the new drive against cheating in schools has led to all exam boards being given access to plagiarism-detection software pioneered in universities.

Since May 2008 they have been able to use the software to analyse pupils' written work by comparing submitted text with writing on the internet and databases of other material, so that copied work can be highlighted. A growing number of schools are also using the software.

"Plagiarism is not a new problem," said a spokesperson for nlearning, the company running the advice service.

"It used to be a local problem, but the increase in use of the internet means that billions of documents are now freely available and the process of copying is much easier."

An Association of Teachers and Lecturers survey of sixth form teachers last year found that 58 per cent thought plagiarism was a problem and 33 per cent estimated that more than a half of student work contained plagiarism.

Gill Rowell, an academic adviser at nlearning, said the company's experience with universities showed it was important to give advice to pupils on using the internet.

"It is about giving them guidance and showing them that the material they find there might belong to someone else and needs to be referenced properly," she said.

Schools could also try to tackle the problem by changing the way they assessed pupils, although Ms Rowell admitted that external exam boards would constrain them in this respect.

She said that in higher education students might be asked to create a webpage rather than a 2,000-word essay, so that they could show they had really understood and not just copied the work.

Guidance for schools on preventing plagiarism should be published for the next academic year. Ms Rowell said she wanted more schools to get involved, both to share their solutions and to review the guidance as it was developed.

Ofqual figures published this week showed that overall there were 3,826 A-level and GCSE candidates penalised for malpractice last summer - representing less than 0.05 per cent of the total - compared to 4,258 in 2007.

Taking unauthorised material into exam rooms accounted for about two-fifths of cases. Smuggling in mobile phones and other electronic devices represented more than one-third of all the cases.

The inclusion of "inappropriate, offensive or obscene material" in exam papers or coursework was the only category of malpractice that increased last year, rising to 302 cases, from 182 in 2007.

For more on the anti-plagiarism project, email anne.flood@nlearning.co.uk.

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