Shock result in exam cheats battle

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REPORTS of exam cheating by Scottish school pupils have rocketed this summer, with incidents of plagiarism doubling.

A crackdown on dishonest students sitting their Standard Grades and Highers resulted in more than 80 allegations of copied work, and nearly 120 suspected cases of using mobile phones to cheat.

Combined with "unauthorised notes" scribbled on students' bodies or hidden pieces of paper, and banned electronic devices taken into exam halls, there were 221 incidents reported to the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

That represents an overall increase in cheating allegations of around a third and is likely to result in several dozen students being disqualified.

Last night, one teaching union called for the SQA to take a tougher stance on cheats, including greater use of existing powers to impose an automatic fail on all subjects taken that year.

The SQA's malpractice unit is investigating 83 allegations of plagiarism compared with 41 in 2005.

The reports all relate to course work counting towards exam grades. The SQA's coursework guide specifically warns students to reference work and not pass off internet material as their own. Candidates must also sign a declaration that the work is their own.

Mike Haggerty, the SQA's director of communications, said: "The main difficulty we have had is that pupils have lifted and copied work from the internet and attempted to pass it off as their own.

"A couple of candidates have also been reported after remarkable similarities in their coursework. Plagiarism is not going away but nor is our vigilance. Our markers know their subjects better than pupils and they will always discover if cheating is going on."

Earlier this year, in a tacit admission that plagiarism was widespread, schools were issued with a detailed guide on how to detect signs of pupils who use the internet to "improve" essays and coursework.

It urged staff to target youngsters they suspect of copying others' work and, when pupils deny guilt, suggested teachers use search engines to find information they suspected of being cut and pasted from the web.

Coursework forms a huge part - as much as 75% in some subjects - of the total marks awarded in Scottish exams, tempting some pupils to cheat.

Meanwhile, large numbers of students continue to take mobile phones into exams. Despite clear warnings that taking a phone into the hall is likely to result in disqualification, 119 youngsters - eight more than last year - were caught. Haggerty added: "Some mobile phone cases were simple mistakes but, just like this year, some definitely are not."

And one of the most old-fashioned forms of exam cheating, the hidden note, is alive and well.

The SQA is investigating 13 claims that students wrote on themselves or hidden notes. Haggerty said: "We are talking about people writing on their body parts and stuffing things in their socks. Stuff like that. Others secreted tiny notes around their body."

The wide availability of palm-top computers and other cheap, miniaturised electronic devices also proves too much of a temptation for a small number of students.

Six are being investigated for having unauthorised electronic devices in the exam hall despite a clear ban on MP3 players, and calculators containing inappropriate data.

Reports of cheating do not automatically result in disqualification and large numbers of students are cleared following investigation. Of last year's 41 plagiarism cases, for example, only 11 were upheld. And only 68 out of 109 candidates caught with mobiles were penalised.

Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers Association of Scotland, said: "We live in an electronic age and this problem is not going away. The SQA takes a tough line but they need to go further. We have reached the stage where if a pupil attempts to cheat in one exam they should get no results at all."

Judith Gillespie, a spokeswoman for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said pressure to succeed was pushing many youngsters to cheat in their coursework.

She said: "Children have reached the point where it doesn't matter how you get results, as long as you get them. The reliance on coursework encourages them to cheat. We need to get back to more basic exams in which it is harder to break the rules. Ability and hard work have gone out the window."

Fiona Hyslop, the SNP's education spokeswoman, added: "The fact these pupils have been caught shows that the system is working. Exams should be about testing knowledge and learning for life, not learning to cheat."

An Executive spokesman said all allegations of cheating were a matter for the SQA.