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Saturday, 15 June, 2002, 03:43 GMT 04:43 UK
What makes teachers cheat
Mike Baker graphic

There have been notes hidden inside "lucky" mascots, complicated two-way radio systems, and even mobile phone calls during toilet breaks. Exam cheating is nothing new.

But the long and ignoble tradition, stretching from the pages of The Beano to real life, has usually been centred on the exploits of students.

Now it is teachers who are being investigated.

These incidents are rare - but seem to be on the increase

In a number of cases over the last couple of years teachers, and even head teachers, have been caught cheating.

Last year, 11 primary schools had their results annulled after investigations by officials revealed they could not be sure the pupils' work was their own.

One primary head teacher who had admitted altering answers in last year's national curriculum tests (the SATs) has been allowed this week to resume her career after a severe reprimand for gross professional misconduct.

Variety of motives

The one comforting fact is that these incidents are sufficiently rare to make the news. But they seem to be on the increase.

Why do teachers do it? The reasons vary according to whom you ask.

In a very few cases, it could be for financial gain. In others it is often a moment of madness resulting from the stress of meeting targets.

And, according to some, there are those cases where the teacher just cannot bear to see a pupil struggling.

This last excuse may seem a bit lame but I suspect it is a cause of "minor" cheating, particularly in primary schools.

Just a little help

Experienced former primary school head teachers have told me this sort of cheating is quite common.

It is not usually premeditated but is prompted by the habits of helping a child who is making an uncharacteristic or silly error.

For example, I was told, a teacher watching their class do an English test might notice a child has failed to use capital letters even though it is a mistake they would not usually make.

Instinct kicks in and the teacher leans over and says, "Now then, what do we do when we start a new sentence?"

A light bulb goes on, and the child inserts the required capital letter.


Another example cited to me was of a child who was stressed by the tests and had become completely stuck on a maths question.

The class teacher, hating to watch the child suffering, gives a hint of the way forward. It's wrong, but it's human.

Primary school teachers are very close to the children in their class. They don't like to see them struggle and they know when a child is not performing at their usual level through being are confused, upset or overwhelmed.

The chances of being checked are small

A more serious type of cheating is when teachers have advance knowledge of the tests and drill their pupils accordingly.

Test papers are sent in sealed envelopes to schools well ahead of the exam dates. These days security is tighter than it was and spot-checks are made to see whether seals have been broken.

But the chances of being checked are still small.

Teachers involved in marking test papers can have advance knowledge of test questions. This opens another potential avenue for cheating.

Sitting less able children next to brighter ones, and allowing them to copy, is another alleged form of cheating.

Clues on the wall

Another trick the authorities watch out for is schools which leave visual aids in the classroom while tests are taking place.

So, for example, spot checks are now made to ensure that spelling lists and times tables displays have been covered over.

This sort of cheating is less likely to be prompted by concern for individual pupils than over a school's overall results.

The stakes are high. The government has invested enormous political capital in meeting its high profile targets, set five years ago, for this summer's test results for 11 year olds.

Higher targets - and stress

After good early gains progress slowed last year. It looks touch and go whether the targets will be reached.

The stress on schools is enormous

In an attempt to raise test results in England, the government has imposed demanding targets on local education authorities. They in turn set targets for schools.

Any head teacher will tell you that test performance fluctuates year to year, even within a long-term rising trend. These targets make no allowance for this.

The stress on schools is enormous. One or two pupils having an off day, or a "rogue" year group, can make all the difference in one year's results.

This year one London primary school was reported to have felt it necessary to test two children recovering from chickenpox.

Even though this meant putting them in an isolation room, the head felt under pressure to improve his league table position and, as he pointed out, each child counted for 2% of the school's scores.

Private coaching

The SATs results are unlike GCSEs and A-levels in that the stakes are high for the school, not for the child.

One head teacher told a recent conference that one of her pupils had refused to take the tests at the age of 14 because, as she put it, there was nothing in it for her.

However, parents have not fully realised that the SATs are really a measure of the progress a school is making with its pupils - not a qualification for the child.

Private coaching to improve SATs results is ludicrous but it happens. Anxious parents are a further strain on teachers.

Tighter security

And although no figures exist, private tutors seem to be enjoying a growth market. Just look at the Yellow Pages.

This is a worrying trend. Although many are excellent, private tutorial colleges are not required to be registered or to employ qualified teachers.

There is serious money to be made. They can charge up to 15 an hour per student. With a class of, say, 10 students that is a good hourly rate.

Past exam performance is a key selling point for private tutors. Success brings financial reward through increased business.

Inspector Morse or Sherlock Holmes would find it hard to detect the crime

The exam boards are increasing their security measures.

In the past, when the exam boards were merely offshoots of universities, high security was not thought necessary.

Now exams are a huge business but, as the head of Edexcel has put it, the system must still run "on trust" when thousands of schools, and tens of thousands of teachers, are involved.

What next?

Sealed envelopes and spot-checks are some precaution. But what if someone at a school simply orders more exam papers than are required?

They could, in theory, remove these additional papers from a school's store room and no-one would know.

There would be no broken seals. Inspector Morse or Sherlock Holmes would find it hard to detect the crime.

At present, the exams officers can be specially recruited staff or they can be regular teachers. They are not required to say whether they have any interest in, say, a private tutorial business.

Strictly speaking, only the designated exams officers should have access to the papers. In practice - and for perfectly innocent reasons - other staff are sometimes given access to check that the right papers have been sent.

The exam boards are likely to be reviewing their guidelines to schools after this summer.

The pressures to cheat have grown. Sadly, the precautions will have to be tightened accordingly.

We welcome your comments at although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

13 Jun 02 | UK Education
13 Mar 02 | UK Education
18 Apr 02 | UK Education
03 Sep 01 | UK Education
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