Middle-class students are cheating the system by completing their GCSE and A-level coursework with too much help from their parents and the internet, a survey of teachers has found.
Teachers fear the heavy reliance on coursework in exam syllabuses could put some students - especially boys and working-class candidates - at a disadvantage, according to the study carried out for the National Union of Teachers (NUT).
Those polled questioned the validity of coursework results, arguing that it was difficult to ensure that coursework was all a student's own work.
Caroline Wickenden, of London University's Institute of Education, who conducted the poll for the NUT, said middle- class students' access to the internet provided them with tailor-made coursework.
"Concern was expressed at the difficulty of ensuring that submitted coursework was the students' own, and that they had not received undue assistance," she said. "It was also commented that students with internet access could now readily copy information for inclusion in a coursework project, and some respondents said that it was possible to download specifically tailored coursework assignments."
One teacher who responded to the survey complained that pupils were being "spoon-fed" and were not learning to work independently. "Unfortunately, the pressure on teachers (and pupils) to achieve grades is resulting in a lot of schools falling into the trap of "spoon-feeding" coursework," he said. "As a result, pupils are not developing their ability to work independently and manage their work."
Another teacher said: "Coursework is becoming an activity that is purely jumping through hoops, and the pupils often cannot recognise the value of it as a result. It is regarded as a means to an end." Teachers were concerned that the assignments also favoured girls over boys, and gave middle-class candidates an advantage over students from poorer backgrounds.
The report concluded: "It was felt that well-motivated girls benefited from coursework, but that it was less favourable to boys. It was felt also that students from backgrounds of social disadvantage were unable to achieve as highly in coursework assignments relative to middle-class students, who were perceived to gain from a higher level of parental support in completing the assignments, and would be more likely to have access to resources such as the internet, which would assist them in the completion of coursework."
The survey comes as Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, is conducting a review of secondary education and is proposing scrapping coursework in individual subjects in favour of one lengthy dissertation. Mr Tomlinson has criticised the coursework arrangements, saying students are often forced to duplicate very similar coursework in each subject.
The poll of 1,707 secondary school teachers showed that teachers believe coursework should continue to contribute to exam grades: 73 per cent said it should be part of GCSE courses; 61 per cent said it should be part of AS courses; and 64 per cent said it should be part of A-level courses. But they were opposed to the idea of unlimited coursework: only one per cent believed there should be no upper limit on the amount of coursework. Some teachers said the amount of coursework should be determined by the nature of the subject being studied, with subjects which were perceived as "academic" - such as science or maths - being assessed by examinations, and subjects which were regarded as "creative" or "practical" - such as art or design and technology - being assessed by coursework. The teachers also complained that the time spent administering coursework created too much extra work and reduced the amount of time available for teaching.
HOW THE WEB COMES TO THE RESCUE
Students and school pupils without the time or the inclination to do their own homework can now employ others to do it for them over the internet. A new website, www.writingdirect.co.uk, offers "a team of Oxford and Cambridge graduates" to write coursework at anything from GCSE to degree level.
For an undisclosed fee, the site will write and research essays for unmotivated but well-off students.
"Whatever your subject, whatever your level, our writers can produce a lucid, incisive document on whatever you desire," the site, which is operated by the Bristol-based company Student Media Services Ltd, boasts.
"Writing Direct Limited has access to textbooks and mark schemes from many of the top exam boards. Your piece of work will be originally hand-crafted to your specification by an intelligent, highly educated Oxbridge graduate."
Essays at A-level and university level include a "free bibliography" and, for students with an old-fashioned belief in doing their own work, the site offers a comprehensive proof-reading service. Ghost-written personal statements for university application forms are also on sale.
Another site, www.ukessays.com, offers desperate university students next-day delivery of coursework essays for £70 per 500 words for an essay which would score a 2.1. A first costs an extra £52.50 per 500 words.Reuse content