Children as young as seven could be asked to sign "honesty codes" at their schools in a plan to cut down on cheating in national curriculum tests and exams.
The "honesty codes" system, widely in use in the United States, could be introduced in primary as well as secondary schools, and universities, to stamp out plagiarism and cheating, said Isabel Nisbet, acting chief executive of Ofqual, the school exams watchdog. Parents would be sent a letter spelling out unacceptable behaviour in exams, under the proposals.
Ms Nisbet, who was addressing a conference on plagiarism at Northumbria University in Newcastle yesterday, said: "They [the children] sign up to a code which determines what's acceptable practice and what's not. The fact that they're signing up to it focuses the mind on it.
"It is used in higher education – particularly in the States but it can work with very young children, too. After all, they have to make a difficult transition from working in groups together to suddenly being told they're on their own and they mustn't look at other children's. They can grasp the concept of 'this should be my work'."
The codes, which could cover national curriculum tests for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds, GCSEs, A-levels and degrees, would promote "virtue" in exam practice, she said, adding afterwards in an interview with The Independent: "I would welcome their use. I think we could learn from them."
The conference heard that Ofqual, newly set up to act as an exams regulator independent from the Government, will produce a new set of rules next spring about acceptable practice in exams. They will be drafted in tandem with plagiarism specialists from Northumbria University and sent to parents to tell them how far they can go in helping children with their coursework for GCSE exams.
"I heard of a case where a father thought it was wrong to pencil in things on the internet that might help his child with his science coursework but was quite happy to take him to the Science Museum and say 'This could be helpful to your studies'. I'm not sure there's any difference in the two cases. What is wrong, though, is if the parent ends up writing any part of the coursework themselves."
Ms Nisbet warned of the pressures on teachers to "bump up" the marks of youngsters who were borderline D/C grade passes at GCSE because of the importance of getting more A* to C grade passes to rank highly in league tables.
She said stern disciplinary action should be taken if it was found that teachers had been overhelpful in the production of a child's coursework.
She produced figures which showed there had been 4,258 cases of malpractice in last year's GCSE exams – just 0.06 per cent of the total papers.
However, research in the UK found that while only between four and seven per cent of students admitted cheating, 40 per cent said they knew of someone who had cheated in an exam.
In the US, the figures were higher, with 54 per cent of undergraduates admitting cheating and approximately 60 per cent saying they knew someone who had cheated.
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