Would you ever cheat to pass an exam? Discuss

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The Independent Culture
FOR a couple of hours, when I knew I had a chance to cheat in a real exam, an exam that would stay with me for the rest of my life, as part of my official record . . . I felt light-headed - confused. It wasn't that I was frightened of getting caught. The plan was good; it would work, just as it had worked for other people, in other years, a ritual secret passed down through the generations. It's easy to cheat, once you've genuinely decided that you don't want to get caught. The question was - did I want to cheat? Was I . . . a cheat?

Of course, I've never totally believed in exams as an educational tool - for a start, they exist so that other people can learn about you, rather than so that you can learn about the world. Also, how useful, as a measure of your ability, is a test that you're prepared for? Think about it - if you knew you were going to get breathalysed on Thursday, you'd drink mineral water on Thursday. You wouldn't necessarily have a natural aptitude for not drinking and driving; you'd merely have demonstrated an ability to prepare. Which is why the police try to take you by surprise. And which is why exams never get at the whole truth.

But cheating . . . it makes you think. For instance, where does cheating begin? I remember, just before my biology O-level, a fellow candidate telling me that he knew what our practical exam would be - we'd have to answer questions on a bird's feather - and he knew this because someone had told him that the practical exam might 'tickle your fancy'. A feather, of course, wasn't surprising - it was one of the 10 or 15 possible options; twigs, leaves, bones and so on. I wasn't sure whether to believe him about the feather. But, at that exact moment, something clicked. Of course] These things didn't just appear on our numbered desks, by magic, the moment before the exam started. They had to be trucked in, in crates, and checked over, and counted, and hidden somewhere around the school . . . and someone had to have already decided about these things, probably months before, a little knot of people sitting around a table wondering whether to go for the twig this year, or the leaf or maybe . . . the feather. I thought: what do I do? Not revise the feather? Revise the feather, but only as much as I would have revised it under normal circumstances? To revise the feather would have been, in a way, cheating. I thought about it for a couple of minutes, and did the obvious thing - I revised the feather. And when we walked into the exam, there was . . . yes] There was a feather on every desk.

This, of course, illustrates the big debate about exams - at that moment, back there in the Seventies, I knew pretty much everything there was to know about feathers - what the thick hard bit at the bottom was made out of, how many - spines? - there were at the sides, the method for joining the spines together, how the whole enterprise was waterproofed, irrigated, colour-coded. And now I know . . . nothing. This is, in a way, the meaning of exams - a few days of high-density knowledge, followed by a lifetime of ignorance, of thinking that feathers are the things you get in slightly more expensive duvets, a better-class alternative to fibre-fill.

But . . . so what? Exams, as everybody knows, are not a guide to how clever you are - they're a guide to how good you are at exams; a guide, in a sense, to how good you are at life. They tell you how smart you are.

So, what kind of education system - and, in consequence, what kind of culture - will we have if John Patten gets his way? Patten wants pupils to sit exams at seven, 11, 14, and 16. He wants them to grow up cramming all those discrete information bytes - the battles, the dates, the quotes; he wants them to get used to sitting silently in assembly halls, semi-nauseous, spooling it all out. Perhaps they'll spend a little less of their time actually thinking. Or perhaps they'll spend more of their time thinking - about how to combat exam nerves, how to get their notes in order, how to memorise a list of dates, what the best sleeping pills are for the night before. We'll have an educational culture of ticking boxes, of filling in blanks. So maybe our children won't be thoughtful analysts of Tudor domestic policy - but they'll be smart when it comes to getting things done, cutting corners, playing the system.

It's true - exams in themselves encourage shortcuts, memory-gimmicks, tricks - the grey area of not-quite-cheating. The point of them, for Patten, is to make it easier to tell schools apart - schooling is going to become as much a product as a process. In a consumer society, more and more money is spent on packaging - here, exams are the packaging; results are the coloured paper in which schools will be wrapped. Tell me honestly, employers: would you rather have someone on your team who has spent weeks earnestly learning facts, or somebody who has shown initiative, and got hold of the questions before the exam; someone who really understands the system?

'Are you in, then?'

I was flattered. And I realised, also, how much trouble it would save me, knowing what the questions were going to be - and also knowing what my result would be. Could I afford to turn the opportunity down? I imagined what it would be like, the moment of walking into the exam, allowing myself a grin or a wink at my fellow-conspirators. Why not? Why not? Well, because it was cheating. But - what about the feather? Wasn't that cheating? What about looking through books of old exam papers and trying to predict what would come up? Some schools didn't have those books. And, in any case . . . if other people were going to do it, what kind of fool would I be not to?

'Well . . .' I said, genuinely wondering which way I would jump.

He said: 'You know how it works, then?'

'I . . . know how it works.'

He said: 'Tell me tomorrow.'

I said: 'I'll think about it.'-

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