Education Quandary

My children claim that nowadays 'loads' of students cheat at exams, and that no one takes the problem terribly seriously. Are they right? And has this offhand attitude to cheating really become as widespread as they suggest?
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Copying, tipping off friends, sneaking a look at questions ahead of time, smuggling things into the classroom, changing answers – it's terrible what teachers get up to these days.

When it comes to exam cheating, today's best-documented culprits, by far, are primary teachers in charge of Key Stage 2 who have discovered innumerable ways to "massage" their pupils' results. These methods include rehearsing the exact test questions with a class just before the exam, rubbing out wrong answers, adding decimal points and full stops to finished papers, sitting dumb kids next to smart ones so that they can copy, and leaving helpful wall displays in place. According to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the exam watchdog, there were 270 reported SATs incidents last year, more than 90 per cent up on the year before, and 11 schools had their results annulled.

Compared to this, schoolchildren seem like models of virtue. Officially, incidents of known cheating in A- and AS-levels and GCSEs are running at much the same level as they always have been. In 2001 there were 2,000 cases of alleged malpractice, "which, given there are over 24 million separate exam papers taken, isn't exactly a lot", says George Turnbull of the the Joint Council for General Qualifications.

But students tell a different story. They say low-level cheating is now so commonplace that no one thinks twice about it. Writing on thighs, hands, rulers, erasers, thumbnails and tiny, weeny pieces of paper is practically an exam cottage industry. And this bending of the rules goes way beyond the exam room. Parents do their children's coursework. University students download essays from the internet, postgraduates pinch other people's research. Today's students and pupils are probably no more deceitful than they ever were, but they are a lot more worldly. They know the score. They understand it's all a game. And they also see that the boundaries are more blurred than they used to be. Since information is, and always will be, available to them at the push of a button why should they bother to waste time learning great chunks of it?

In addition, both teachers and students understand very clearly that they are now being made to jump through a completely absurd amount of test and exam hoops, not for their own benefit, but for the glory of the school and the Government. Given that, perhaps the only surprising thing about exam cheating is that there isn't 10 times more of it.


Exam results would be nonsense if everyone was cheating, because they would not show what each individual is capable of. As a 16-year-old, I have just sat all my GCSEs and would like to say that if some cheat this doesn't mean that everyone does. I also think that those people who do cheat will experience problems later. A cheat may "pass" with 10 A grades and be offered a place by a university, but the work will be much too hard, and he or she will have to cheat to pass the next exam. It's a continuous circle, and cheats will find it difficult to admit that the results do not really show what they have learned.

Politicians cheat. Accountants cheat. Tax evaders cheat. How can we expect our young people to have higher standards than the society they live in? You cannot stop cheating by watching out for it. There will always be the clever child who manages to get something past an invigilgator. The only way to stop cheating is for pupils to decide for themselves whether this is really what they want to do. Schools should be honest with children and say they know some of them will consider cheating, and that if they do, they may get away with it. But they should tell them to think very hard about what it will mean to them and their peace of mind.

At my last school there were several bad incidences of cheating, but they came to light because the pupils themselves made sure a teacher knew about it. Pupils who are trying to get good grades by honest hard work turn a blind eye to minor things, but if someone smuggles in notes or copies from another's paper, these pupils' natural sense of justice comes into play and they find a way of letting people know about it. Any school that has made the effort to foster a good atmosphere should never have a persistent problem with cheating; if problems did arise it would know how to deal with them through the existing channels.


I am going to finish my teacher training this summer, but want to take a year or more off to travel before settling down to teaching. Some of my fellow students say this is mad. They believe it will hamper my start in my career, and will mean that I'll forget much of what I've learnt in training. They say it would be better to teach for a few years, and take time off when I've got some experience under my belt. Are they right?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 15 July, 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 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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