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Dispatches investigation reveals extent of student plagiarism

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Nearly 60,000 students at UK universities were accused of plagiarism over a four year period, reveals an investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches.

Recorded plagiarism is “just the tip of the iceberg”, says Dr Thomas Lancaster, an expert in student plagiarism from Birmingham City University.

The findings form part of a wider investigation into the tricks used to bend the rules in Britain’s education system, all the way from primary school to university.

Exams: Cheating the System? Channel 4 Dispatches, which airs tonight (Monday 15th June) includes:

  • Details of a multi-million pound industry where university students pay companies to write their coursework.
  • A Freedom of Information request that highlights the true extent of plagiarism in UK Universities. Over a 4 year period nearly 60,000 students have been accused of plagiarism
  • 500 primary schools were investigated by the Department for Education in 2013, with 37 primary schools having their marks annulled for “maladministration”.
  • Case study: a leaked internal email sent by the Department for Education to King’s Farm primary school in Kent reveals serious failings in the way the tests were conducted. A whistleblower spoke to Dispatches about how the school “helped” pupils in a SATs exam – including allowing a child to re-write answers after the exam had finished
  • A survey suggests that one in ten secondary schools include GCSE resits in their own overall figures. This is despite the Department for Education banning the practice in its own official statistics
  • Detail of how some secondary schools may boost their headline exam results by signing off poor performing students from the school register. A parent of one of the pupils interviewed in the programme said it meant her daughter had not got the grades she deserved

Plagiarism at University

Channel 4 Dispatches has found that nearly 60,000 university students have been accused of plagiarism, in the last four years. More than 40,000 disciplined, over 400 excluded and 12,000 had marks deducted.

Mark Ridlolfo, a standards expert at Bournemouth University says: “There’s a whole gamut of offences that students can commit and, they range from copying work without correctly acknowledging the source right the way through to really serious offences such as using essay banks.”

Essay bank websites are a particular concern, with some students taking someone else’s essay and handing it in as their own.

Mark Ridlolfo says: “We would find that [submitting someone else’s work] absolutely contemptible, it’s the worst form of academic offence.

“It is cheating, punishments vary, but, but in the worst case, certainly a student would be immediately excluded from University and stripped of all their credit.”

Universities now have a powerful weapon against students who cheat – anti-plagiarism software.

However, anti-plagiarism software won’t necessarily detect – the essay students hand in that is written by someone else.

Channel 4 Dispatches investigated the multi-million pound industry where university students pay companies to write their coursework.

Dr Thomas Lancaster, Britain’s leading expert on academic cheating says: “The vast majority of students of course are completely honest but I’ve seen estimates of £200 million a year going through these [essay writing] sites.”

“I think there’s a lot of cheating out there. What we detect is only the tip of the iceberg.”
Channel 4 Dispatches contacted several leading essay-writing companies. Two of the companies suggested we could hand in an essay bought through their service. The others companies said we should rewrite it to some extent.

Primary School - SATs

Children take Standard Assessment Tests, or SATs, in the last year of primary school. They were originally designed to check pupils’ progress but today many teachers believe they serve a very different purpose.

Leigh Hovey, author of ‘Education By Numbers' says: “When SATs were introduced, they were set out to test the children and now they’re used to measure schools."

"If we were looking for a school for our own children, the first thing we do is look at how well is this school performing, I want my child to go to that school."

"The people who really feel the pressure are the teachers."

Channel 4 Dispatches has learned that when pupils reach 11, some teachers give them a little extra “help” in their SATs tests to make them appear brighter than they really are.

This “help” has landed schools in trouble. Each year, a small number have their SATs results annulled for what’s known as “maladministration”.

Warwick Mansell, an education expert and journalist says: “The best statistics I think we’ve got recently have been 37 schools being found guilty of maladministration by government’s testing agency and 500 under investigation.”

“These are based on you know, teachers and parents coming forward and reporting concerns and given how difficult that is, that must be particularly if you’re working in a school to blow the whistle like that you’ve got to think of the, the true scale of the problem is bigger than this.”

Case Study: Kings Farm Primary

Kings Farm Primary in Gravesend had last Summer’s SATs results annulled. A teacher told Dispatches about the “help” one child had been given - after his test was over.

A primary school teacher says: “He’d used a pen during the test but the pen had started wearing out and you couldn’t see his answers very clearly and at the end and he was told that he could have a new pen and he could change any of his answers and I said did you change your answers and he said yes I did change some of my answers.”
Another Kings Farm child was allowed to sit her test in a room away from her classmates.

A primary school teacher says: “In special circumstances if a child needed any extra help erm, due to special needs, but this child really didn’t need to be in a room on her own.

The Government’s Standards and Testing Agency investigated. It refused our request under the Freedom of Information Act for a copy of its findings but we have obtained this internal email which summarises them.

The agency found serious failings about the way the tests were conducted and did not accept the school’s explanation for them. It annulled all the SATs results for all the children and so far none of the parents have been given an official explanation.

A parent with a pupil at the school says: “I’m really angry about it. It’s not a good way for a school to be. Schools are there to teach children.”
In a statement, Kent County Council confirmed that its own investigation had found evidence of “inappropriate behaviour” during assessments.

It said: “We acted quickly to ensure that the year group of pupils could move onto secondary school in September 2014 without disruption to their progress.
“…The children in the early years were reassessed and adjustments made where necessary.

“…A new leadership team has been in place at King’s Farm since September 2014.

“…Kent County Council is pleased with the progress the school is making and is working closely with it to make sure standards remain high.”

Former head of a state primary school altering pupils’ SATs papers

To find out what motivates a teacher to break the rules, Channel 4 Dispatches spoke to a former head of a state primary school who left after altering his pupils’ SATs papers.

The former head teacher says: “I suppose I was too rash and perhaps should have just taken a step back and not done anything with the papers but I was worried. And the unfortunate thing is the education system in this country really does push results and tests and exams.

He explained what happens to a school that consistently gets bad SATS results."

The former head teacher says: “Parents will then have a choice to keep their children at the School or move them… If a child leaves they’re taking money with them because you are funded based on the number of children you’ve got. Money is walking out of the School one by one.
He adds: “A fellow Head Teacher rang me and his exact words were the only thing you did wrong was you got caught. I made a mistake and I paid the price."

Exams: Cheating the System? Channel 4 Dispatches, Monday 15th June at 8pm

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