Johann Hari: Coursework: the charter for school cheats

It's another way for middle-class parents to rig the system in favour of their coddled kids
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The Independent Online

If Britain's coursework system were submitted for examination, it would be lucky to scrape an E grade and a place doing Golf Course Studies at De Montfort University. This week, the AQA exam board warned (again) that teachers are routinely waving through material "blatantly copied from the internet", and another GCSE exam authority, Edexcel, warned that schools were now offering so much "help" to students that it amounted to "a kind of mass plagiarism".

Coursework has become another way in which middle- class parents have rigged the education system in favour of their coddled children. Last year, the National Union of Teachers surveyed 1,700 of its members and found they believe coursework "favours the middle-class" and "penalises working-class boys". By the time it reaches an examiner, they explained, several layers of privilege have coated a middle-class child's coursework.

My parents and siblings all left school at 16 and view academic work as a mysterious foreign land, but even if I had asked them for help with my GCSE coursework a decade ago, they would - quite rightly - have told me to do my own damn work. This would be viewed as heresy in Highgate or Dulwich, where parents routinely offer "helpful advice" - a rephrasing here, a suggested paragraph there - and employ private tutors to do the same. Some even write the coursework for their kids. I was astonished when a 42-year-old friend cancelled a dinner-date recently because "I've got history coursework to hand in tomorrow".

But the rigging does not end with Mummy and Daddy. Teachers are permitted under the rules to get absurdly close to writing the assignments for their students. They are allowed (and, in posh schools, expected) to provide "scaffolding" for the essays - outlining the paragraph-by-paragraph structure a pupil should follow. Some hand out "fact-sheets" with useful quotations and suggested arguments.

Teachers are supposed to be the front line guarding against plagiarism and cheating, but - in obeisance to the great god of League Tables - they are often acting as its cheerleaders.

Francis Gilbert - author of the excellent I'm a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here! - explains: "This is particularly bad in the so-called 'posh' schools, where the pressure to get amazing results out of indolent, arrogant students is intense." When Gilbert started working at a so-called comprehensive stuffed with middle-class children, he was puzzled as to how the English department managed to achieve 100 per cent A-C grades.

The deputy head explained: "We cheat! But everyone does, so it doesn't matter." Any child falling behind (rare in a school with such "helpful" parents) was placed in a special class where the teacher would write out the correct sentences underneath their sub-literate scrawl, and they would copy her. Gilbert explains: "This was back in the days when English was assessed entirely by coursework. Once that ended, surprise, surprise, the results plummeted."

Far from growing up too fast - that narcoleptic cliché - middle- class teenagers are now unbelievably infantilised and over-protected: in 2002, a teacher was forced to quit Charterhouse public school (cost: £18,000 a year) after it was revealed that he had not even required many of his students to complete their coursework. He simply invented high grades on their mark sheets, assuming his boys were A-grade candidates.

But it's not just the bias it provides to middle-class students that should kill coursework. Its credibility has been mown down on the information super-highway. On Googling, I found companies that promise "coursework on business, economics, politics and many other subjects starting at just £9.99". Some exam boards even seem to believe internet plagiarism is acceptable - Dr Ellie Johnson Searle, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, has said downloading essays from the net is OK as long as students put them into their own words. This, she says, is "a form of self-teaching".

Later this year, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is to conclude a two-year investigation into cheating in Britain's exams. It will be bizarre if they do not declare the coursework system corrupt from top to bottom. If it is to survive at all, it should be written under supervised conditions in the school .

But it is hard to imagine the Government being brave enough to puncture the illusion of ever-rising GCSE grades (never mind provoking the ire of middling Middle England parents). It seems the Government prefers a system that rewards the pushy dishonesty of parents and teachers rather than the abilities of their children.