Education Quandary

'Should parents help their children with coursework? Our daughter claims that all her friends' parents are practically doing their work for them. Should we do the same? We don't want her to miss out.'
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The Independent Online

HILARY'S ADVICE

HILARY'S ADVICE

Would you park on a double yellow line? Pocket a fiver that you found? Fiddle your income tax? Like every issue where the boundary between right and wrong grows fuzzy, this question is almost entirely between you and you conscience.

On paper, the rules seem straightforward enough. They say that parents and teachers can offer advice and guidance on coursework, or show a student how to do something, but the piece of work submitted must be the student's own. Teachers are supposed to be satisfied that this is the case, and both student and teacher sign a declaration to this effect for each coursework entry.

Any obvious evidence of cheating - if the whole of 11B writes exactly the same history coursework, for example, or a geography candidate turns in PhD-standard coursework while his exam papers appear to have been answered by Donald Duck - is investigated, and can lead to action against the candidate.

But most cheating isn't obvious. Parents can ladle out huge amounts of "advice" on research, planning, writing and amending without anyone knowing a thing about it. They can write the whole damn thing and no one be any the wiser, especially if they're clever enough to add in the odd spelling mistake and teenage gauchery for true authenticity.

Exam boards run training courses for teachers to advise them on what is or is not acceptable support. Parents are not so lucky. Those concerned about the ethics of the thing have to fumble their own way forward.

A good guideline might be to ask yourself whether, at the end of any coursework session with you, your daughter has actually learnt something from the help you have given her. Or has she just sat back and let you labour on her behalf? If you can manage to give her support and guidance in a way that helps her to develop her own understanding, you will be getting the best of both worlds - better coursework, and a student whose own independent learning is deepening and moving forward.

READERS' ADVICE

I have faced this quandary with my own children. My daughter has gone to university, and my son has just completed GCSEs and is doing his A-levels. I was aware that many of their friends were obtaining help from parents and private tutors to do coursework. However, we decided not to offer help. We felt that if the children were capable of getting a good grade themselves, they would benefit from doing the coursework independently. If not, we would be undermining their self-confidence further by implying that the only way they could succeed was by cheating, and by putting them into a position later, at university or in work, where they would not be capable of the work expected of them.

Rachel Reeve, Wiltshire

I am an AS-level student and have recently completed my GCSEs. I cannot thank my dad enough for the help he gave me with my coursework. I can honestly say that without it I would have been lost. Years 10 and 11 are extremely stressful and sometimes you need parental help with work to relieve this stress. You also need an outsideopinion on your work - what you think is good may be considered poor in someone else's eyes.

You need to ask what you mean by "help". This does not necessarily mean telling your child the answers, but rather encouraging her to find her talent. I did feel that at times my dad was interfering, but I soon realised that he was doing it for me. Next time your child asks for help, be willing at least to try to give it.

A Russell, London

I just wish some of my pupils' parents would show any interest, but most are either too busy to help, or wouldn't know how to. Meanwhile, other pupils come from the kind of homes where help and information is available at every turn. It's a shame it's not the same for everyone.

Bernard Frierley, London

Next week's quandary

My son is studying history and German at a good university, but I am appalled by how little he - and his friends studying other subjects - have to do. They seem to get almost no tuition, attend few lectures, and have just had a "reading week" during which many of them went home for the week. Is it normal to have such a light timetable? And is it right? I don't think that my son is just skiving.

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 17 November, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

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