Cheating, coursework and a lesson in fairness

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Whether there is any truth in the allegations made by Prince Harry's former art teacher at an employment tribunal yesterday, to the effect that the Prince was given unfair help to complete his A-level coursework, remains to be seen. But that there is a general problem with the role of coursework in our examination system - and its susceptibility to abuse - is beyond doubt. There has been a trend over the past few years whereby students of all ages, instead of being graded on their performance in final exams, are given marks based on work completed over the course of the year.

Whether there is any truth in the allegations made by Prince Harry's former art teacher at an employment tribunal yesterday, to the effect that the Prince was given unfair help to complete his A-level coursework, remains to be seen. But that there is a general problem with the role of coursework in our examination system - and its susceptibility to abuse - is beyond doubt. There has been a trend over the past few years whereby students of all ages, instead of being graded on their performance in final exams, are given marks based on work completed over the course of the year.

The basic principle of graded coursework is perfectly sound. Some pupils thrive in one-off exams. But others fail to give a good account of themselves, for a variety of reasons. For the latter group, an element of coursework is helpful. Studies have shown that boys tend to fare better than girls in timed exams. Coursework can therefore be a good way to reach a fairer assessment of each pupil's level of effort and knowledge.

The problem is, however, that coursework has become far too prevalent. At GCSE level, 20 to 30 per cent of marks are now often earned through coursework, rather than a final exam. In GCSE English it is as high as 40 per cent. And there is compelling evidence that the system is being abused. The internet is one obvious avenue for cheating. Some pupils are downloading essays and information wholesale from the web and submitting it as their own work. The High Master of St Paul's school has called the internet "a gift to plagarism" and wants coursework to be scrapped altogether.

The other route for abuse is more subtle, but no less unfair. Teachers and parents often find it impossible to resist the urge to interfere unduly in the coursework set for their students and children. In truth, the whole system has become something of a middle-class racket. And those from poorer backgrounds or less-privileged schools end up at a disadvantage.

Abuse is by no means limited to GCSE level. A report by the Plagiarism Advisory Service last year claimed to show that a quarter of university students copy material for coursework direct from the internet. Cheating undoubtedly goes on at A-level too.

Some subjects, such as art and design, clearly have to be examined largely through coursework. And, as a component of an exam, coursework undoubtedly has its merits. But strict limits must be placed on its use - as argued in the recent Tomlinson Report on education. The Education Secretary should not delay in acting upon this recommendation. Grades must ultimately be awarded on the basis of a timed exam. It is a question of elementary fairness.

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