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Honesty is the best policy

Published on 01/10/18

Never has it been easier to research for homework, coursework or even a dissertation. Long gone are the days of methodically working through microfiche and then sourcing articles from periodicals or rare publications in a library many miles away. And there is no denying greater access to knowledge and scope for home learning have played their part in strengthening the level of academic performance in higher education. As this week’s report in the news illustrates, there is a darker side to the wider access to information with the growing cottage industry of selling essays online.

The Goveian reforms championed rigour at GCSE, but perhaps coursework was a casualty due to growing questions over the validity of the coursework, rather than the rigour of actually completing coursework assignments. Universities now fear the temptation of purchasing the work of others online is too great. Given the potential to inflate someone’s degree and perhaps life chances, this is a reasonable fear. Of course the principle of seeking help from others has always presented an element of unfairness, but previously university students or school pupils would have asked a friend or relative, rather than simply paying a complete stranger.

As schools we are presented with the potential conflict of wishing our pupils the best life chances that an aspirational university offer gives, while wishing to honour our responsibility to play our role in ensuring the whole process is fair for all. The difficulty lies in the fact that predicting grades is tough; how well could our pupils do in nine months’ time? Predictions can underestimate as well as overestimate grades. This becomes all the more relevant when one appreciates universities sometimes accept pupils who miss their grades, but if their predictions are not strong enough, they will not get that offer in the first place. Ultimately it is not dishonest to predict based on our professional opinion of how pupils are likely to perform with a fair wind (as opposed to a gust) behind them, but no more. In any case, a pupil who gets lots of offers but misses their grades will not thank the school that freely predicts when in fact the school should be guiding pupils to the universities that are right for them, rather than raising predictions.

Similarly, our children may get better marks if we, their parents, help them with their homework. Ultimately, however, when schools assess a pupil’s progress, our aim is to assess how they, rather than their parents, friends, Google or paid online sources understand the material. That doesn’t make it wrong for a pupil to ask for help, or indeed to look at new sources, but it is wrong to be dishonest and to present the work of others as our own.

Honesty is not always easy – the bearer of bad news – shooting the messenger – home truths – and the way it is conveyed need not be stark and unsupported, but it is something every community depends upon to work openly and effectively.

William Brierly