Children's coursework: We're all at it

Parents doing their children's coursework? Guilty, says Henry McLynn
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The Independent Online

How much are parents allowed to help their children study for GCSE exams? The answer used to be simple - as much as the parents feel disposed to help, and as much as their offspring are disposed to let them. If the kid's father or mother happens to understand particle physics or the point of artesian wells, and can pass on this rare and wondrous knowledge to the kid as a valuable supplement to what they've learned at school (and always assuming the kid will accept this parental tuition without wailing, "Oh Da-ad, don't be such a boff...") then everybody wins. Isn't that obvious?

Not any more. An alarming, Kafkaesque body called the Qualification and Curriculum Authority has been reviewing the concept of "coursework" and concludes that pupils, teachers and families are all flouting the rules. Pupils are downloading, from a dozen Internet sites, pre-digested answers to coursework in a dozen subjects. Teachers are providing "excessive" help, in the form of model essays churned out as identical "course-work clones." And parents, it seems, are pretty well writing their children's coursework for them.

If you're shocked to hear such a thing, you're not a parent. Because we've all been there. What starts as a helping hand for a neurotic five-year-old soon turns into something more sinister. You become your child's ghostwriter, the power behind the playpen, the furtive puppet-master behind your offspring's homework triumphs.

I remember visiting my friend Sally and admiring the remarkably sophisticated maquette of the solar system (complete with papier-maché planets dangling on thread) and congratulating her daughter Geraldine (aged 5) on her cleverness. "Of course she didn't do it," said Sally crossly. "I did it. It took ages. But all the other mothers will do exactly the same. Bethan Scott's mother, I can guarantee, will have put rings around her Saturn. And bloody moons as well..."

Of course you join in. When the children have a single evening to fashion a musical instrument from household objects, you construct a xylophone from milk bottles. At the school gates, you see Humphrey Bell's over-achieving dad has eclipsed your efforts by making a working model of a Viennese zither out of circuit boards and bailing twine.

It goes on, this mild, mater-paternal deception. When your child, at eight, is told to write a little poem about vegetables, the result will be 16 lines of sparkling light verse, in which "swede" rhymes with "Venerable Bede," "radish" rhymes with "laddish" and "potatoes" with "Waitrose," and nobody is fooled for a single second. By then, a kindly, mutually understood fiction sustains you and the teachers: that your child is a genius and, if the parent helps out now and again, the result will still be taken as his/her own work, and everyone will be happy.

The QCA's guidelines are for the parents of older children doing GCSEs and A-levels, and offer non-negotiable rules. You can discuss academic "projects" with the students, you can steer them towards suitable books. But "You must not put pen to paper - you must not help write the coursework."

Oh please. None of us actually writes out a whole exam answer paper. That would be close to forgery. What parents do is chat to the child about US foreign policy in the Cold War, or what Arthur Miller meant by the witch-hunts in The Crucible and then - and only then, when the child betrays signs of weeping with boredom and frustration - do we write anything down.

We write a couple of clear, focused paragraphs, setting out the Truman Doctrine or the Communist Conspiracy as simply as possible so that, say, my daughter Clare will use it as a springboard for her own thoughts. If the couple of paragraphs should find their way into a coursework essay - well, that's shockingly lazy of the child, and she'll look at you in a funny way when she gets only a B-minus. But it's not systematic corruption. You were trying to clarify her thoughts.

The statistics of involvement (or "interfering" as we must now call it) make interesting reading: Of parents interviewed, 63 per cent "admitted" helping their children with GCSE coursework. Altogether, 39 per cent helped them find sources, 37 per cent corrected their spelling and grammar, while five per cent "drafted" the actual fall of words. Here, obviously, is the grey area. And as the QCA guide makes clear, this is the danger zone where the child could be disqualified because of "inappropriate parental involvement."

But it's never that simple. Who is to criticise the parent who works through GCSE Maths with their child, showing the working and supplying the answers, so long as the child eventually twigged how to do it? If your daughter reveals that her Art A-level requires her to produce a portfolio of paintings by Friday, but she is still six paintings short, and if she and you stay up half the night knocking up between you some plausible alternative copies of what she's already done, does the child deserve disqualification - or a pat on the back for having such an inspired and enterprising parent?

So how far can you go?

The problem facing parents is that there are no official guidelines on just how much they can help with coursework.

Schools will say they should not write the work themselves. What few point out is that if parents do overstep the mark their child can be disqualified from gaining the qualification. Yesterday's report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, offered some basic rules parents should follow:

It's OK to...

* Discuss any topic with your child, and to read and comment on it

* Suggest ways to carry out research or the type of websites to look at

* Advise that a certain piece of work should be put through a spelling and grammar check

* Argue that evidence in the coursework doesn't support the conclusions

It's not OK to...

* Get out the red pens and correct poor spelling and grammar

* Start writing the child's essay - as 5 per cent of the 400 parents surveyed by for the QCA admitted to doing

Richard Garner, Education Editor