They stoop to cheat yet conquer

20th May 2005 at 01:00
The huge profits made by websites that sell readymade essays to schoolchildren make one wonder whether the maxim "cheats never prosper" is as redundant as the biblical commandment about coveting your neighbour's ox.

This week's page 1 report suggests that cheating by pupils and teachers is not only endemic but institutionalised. Eton may vehemently deny that its staff finished off Prince Harry's artwork but such practices appear common elsewhere. It is true that exam boards banned only four teachers for giving inappropriate help with A-level coursework in 2003 but there is ample anecdotal evidence that cheating - particularly in coursework - has increased in recent years. The world and his dog know about pupils' tactics (mobile phones in exam rooms etc) but teachers' and parents' involvement is less well understood. Some teachers are providing pupils with minutely-detailed coursework-essay plans that virtually guarantee a decent mark, while heads of department have occasionally been seen going through piles of coursework with a pen in one hand and correcting fluid in the other. Many parents also privately admit they rewrite their children's coursework. It is a sad situation when both the cheating teachers and parents usually believe they are acting in the children's best interests.

But of course teachers, and heads who condone such cheating, are also responding to the often unbearable pressures of league tables and ever-higher targets.

In America, which has recently witnessed several cheating scandals, dishonest teachers now face up to 10 years' imprisonment. The UK needs a more intelligent response that could involve: a ban on unsupervised coursework; a reduction in the number of essay drafts permitted before a mark is given; more oral assessment; more weight on a final exam; and action against websites that encourage cheating.

Of course, even if such measures are taken we will still have performance tables. There is no immediate prospect of them being ditched in England but ultimately they will have to go. It is only a question of when.

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