The worldwide crib

Easy access to the web, nervous teachers and pushy parents are fuelling an epidemic of plagiarism and other cheating in coursework. Hilary Wilce asks if it's time to go back to old-style exams

First, a confession. This piece of coursework was done with help from outside sources - or "cheating" as it is sometimes known. It took information from the internet, got input from other people, was fitted into a template that has been used for this kind of work before. It was also smoothed and tweaked by teachers, (sorry, sub-editors), before being submitted to the examiners, (sorry, readers).

In the working world, plagiarism and collaboration are routine, but coursework by pupils is supposed to be entirely their own. Unsurprisingly, the little blighters cheat! They copy and paste great chunks of academic wisdom and pass it off as their own. They share work, and buy essays from crib sites.

And parents are even worse. They spend hours at the library searching for books, or stay up all night redrafting projects. Then there are the teachers, many of whom privately admit that the "help" they give students practically amounts to guiding their fingers over the keyboard.

The problem has grown impossible to ignore, and the Government has ordered an urgent review of coursework, in the wake of a report by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority showing that plagiarism and other forms of cheating are out of control.

Its survey, published last autumn, found that 93 per cent of pupils can now access the internet at home - and therefore potentially crib coursework from websites. It also showed that one in 20 parents draft whole essays for their children. It also said that some teachers virtually spell out what pupils should write, and that pupils collude on coursework out of school.

All of which raises two huge questions: do we keep coursework at all, given its problems? And, if so, where do we go from here?

For Simon Warr, a languages teacher at the independent Royal Hospital School, near Ipswich, and the headmaster in Channel Four's next That'll Teach 'Em series, due out in April, it is a no-brainer. Coursework should go.

In fact, as far as he is concerned, it has already gone. His pupils follow no-coursework syllabuses, with an optional written French element instead, "and although they find it a slog writing short essays in French, they just have to get on and do it".

Coursework, he says, offers endless chances to cheat and puts children with helpful parents at an advantage. "And it's an immense administrative task that bogs teachers down in weeks and weeks of marking, assessing and moderating. Then there's all that drafting and redrafting, which leads to everyone getting exhausted and bored and fed up. And by the fifth draft, it's the teacher's work anyway."

The Conservative party agrees with him - it wants less coursework - as do teachers contributing to the TES website, who have pointed out in an open letter to Ruth Kelly that the pressure on teachers to improve results has led to routine classroom cheating, with teachers giving pupils point-by-point essay plans, or standing over them and telling them what to write.

For Martin Stephen, high master of the independent St Paul's School, in London, new technology means coursework has had its day.

"The growth of the internet is a 'cheat's charter' and no anti-cheating system can guard against it. It also makes criminals out of teachers and parents because where does giving help stop? The well-off parent who is desperate for their child to compete and do well, or the teacher in a failing school who can't afford to let a bad piece of coursework through will both always be tempted to give more help than they should."

Coursework does not help disadvantaged children, he says, nor does it help the bright. "I've seen a 14,000-word GCSE coursework answer on Pearl Harbor where the boy had been to Pearl Harbor, and had dug out photographs which I, as a semi-professional naval historian, hadn't been able to get hold of.

You could say that's admirable, but it's also unnecessary. Coursework doesn't work at both ends of the spectrum."

But Philip O'Hear, head of Capital City academy, Brent, believes that getting rid of coursework would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. "We would lose both width and depth, and opportunities for students to develop as fully as they might."

As the former chair of moderators for all-coursework English exams that existed in the 1980s, he knows that much depends on how coursework is set and administered. "But where it is well set up, where assignments have been thought through carefully by the teacher, where pupils are not being asked simply to show a body of knowledge, then there are enormous educational benefits."

Getting rid of it would also widen the gulf between academic and vocational subjects, he points out, just at a time when schools are being asked to bring the two strands closer together.

And while it is well-known that coursework favours middle-class students, "the answer is not to take away the opportunity from everyone, but to level up and support our disadvantaged pupils".

But critics and advocates agree that a middle way could be to tighten up coursework, while still hanging on to the essence of individual work.

Simon Warr suggests that any final piece of work should be written under supervision and Martin Stephen agrees, pointing out that such a system already exists for GCSE art students who produce final paintings under exam conditions.

He also believes that the kind of extended project favoured by the international baccalaureate could have a role. "GCSE coursework is like a plank thrown over a stream, whereas this is more like building the Forth Bridge - at least with something this size it's easier to see the joins."

Philip O'Hear says he would have no problem with parents and teachers being given greater guidance about what constitutes reasonable help, or exam centres being made to show how they screen for cheating. "My heart usually sinks whenever I hear the Government is reviewing something, but in this case I hope it can identify some sensible fixes for practical problems."

The QCA is planning a long-term look at coursework on a subject by subject basis, and has produced guidance for parents (see box, top right).

Meanwhile the agency has set up a taskforce under Sue Kirkham, the president of the Association of School and College Leaders, to work on guidelines for authenticating coursework, due to report next month.

"We are fairly confident that we will be able to produce useful information and advice for teachers about identifying plagiarism and cheating in coursework, and about what advice they can give students," she says.

"It is clear that different awarding bodies have different rules for different subjects, but that's understandable. The guidance is obviously going to be different depending on whether you've got a group of students putting on a performance for a performing arts award, or someone writing a piece of history coursework. Part of what we will be saying is that you need to look at the guidance in each specification."

Some are hoping that the new software programmes, already being widely used in universities to identify cheating, will offer a way forward, but Jean Underwood, professor of psychology at Nottingham Trent university, who is advising the Government on internet plagiarism, warns that the answer will never lie with technology alone.

For one thing, she points out, schools do not even need dedicated programmes. "It's perfectly easy to spot when little Tommy suddenly starts using very long words, and, with older children, if there's a phrase that you're suspicious of, all you have to do is Google it, and you'll be amazed what comes up.

"The future is not about catching cheats, but about preventing cheating.

It's an educative process.

"You have to get students to understand about intellectual property rights, and how all work belongs to someone and should be acknowledged, and you have to get parents to understand that if they over-help their children they are not helping them grow, and you have to arrive at a point where, if children are colluding, then they realise they need to be upfront about it.

"Two children doing a geography project could go out and do a survey together on a Saturday in a town centre, but one could write it up from the consumers' point of view, and one from the retailers', and they could both still show what they are capable of.

"What we need is a consensus on what is acceptable. For instance, if a parent helps their child learn to do a keyword search on the internet, I'd say that they are training them in a useful skill. If that parent then pulls out five papers and says 'These are what you need for your project'

I'd say that's over-stepping the mark.

"And if the parent gets out a highlighter and marks all the critical parts, that's definitely cheating - even though we probably all know parents who have done exactly that."

What the QCA tells parents

* You can encourage your child to spend time on coursework, do it well, hand it in on time and stick to the rules

* You can discuss coursework with your child and provide access to research materials

* You cannot put pen to paper

* Students can refer to research, quotations and evidence, but must list their sources

* Students cannot copy or purchase essays, or collude with anyone else

* If your child breaks the rules they might receive no mark for the work, be disqualified from the whole qualification or part of it, or be barred from entering a qualification with that exam board for a period of time

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