Thursday, November 24, 2005

Your cheating parents

Home Front by Sarah Johnson
Catholic Herald 25 November 2005

I don’t do my children’s homework for them. It’s not for want of trying. The trouble is, most nights I can’t even find it. One of the benefits, if it can be called that, of having given birth to slightly more children than you are entirely competent to handle is that the poor things have to do things for themselves. I keep meaning to do their homework for them but dinner and other events intervene.

It is also quite hard to do one’s teenager’s GCSE coursework when he shouts “Go away, leave me alone” every time I come into the room. The 63% of parents who – says the Schools Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – are over-enthusiastically helping their children with their GCSE coursework make me feel terribly angry, but I am rather in awe of their resourcefulness.

How do these cheating parents find the work at all, among the mass of saved files with near-identical titles that clogs up the hard drive on most family computers? And when they have located it, how do they understand it (especially if it is maths)?

And how do they persuade adolescent boys to regard the words “write no less than 200 words” as anything other than a strict injunction to write absolutely no more than 200 words? How do they persuade adolescent girls that the same instruction does not mean “write a medium length history book”?

And why have the exam boards, not yet hit on the simple method of thwarting cheating parents by insisting that all coursework be hand-written by the student, instead of typed on a computer?

Coursework is the curse of modern youth. It was clearly invented by keen teachers, probably mostly female, who love reading round a subject, and fondly imagined that coursework would automatically transfer this enthusiasm. Coursework favours girls – who happily produce reams of elegant trivia – over boys, who rise more effectively to the adrenaline surge of traditional exams.

Coursework discourages actual learning: no teenager, especially if male, ever allows a fact to clutter up his precious brain space if it is not strictly essential for passing the exam. Any aspect of any curriculum where, to the question “do I have to learn this for the exam, Sir?” the answer is “No”, is literally worthless.

There is no doubt where the top cheaters are: in the private sector. The definition of a “good” school in this country is one which gets good exam results. If good exam results are all that matter, a school firstly will choose whom it teaches.

So an independent school such as St Paul’s Girls’ School, whose pupils are all female, brilliant and from highly ambitious families, is “top school” year after year. I have known many Paulinas in my time and believe me; you barely need to be a teacher to teach these girls. You just turn up and take their names, and they teach themselves. For politicians to attack faith schools for selecting children who go to church when such tremendous selection exists in private schools is ludicrous.

Secondly, to ensure good results, a school will offer all the coursework help it can get away with. Exactly how much is limited not by any scruple, or highfalutin’ belief in education for education’s sake, but only by the financial resources of the school and the parents – the posher the school, the more difficult will it be to detect the “extra” little nudges and pushes given to GCSE students.

Cheating parents never know they are cheating, at the time. Being a parent renders most people blind to their actions. Very sensible, very nice, otherwise totally trustworthy people suddenly become savages when it comes to furthering the interests of their children.

And in so doing they are merely following the most mendacious, hypocritical, divided school system in the West. When Labour back-benchers wail that the Government’s Education White Paper will create a “two tier system”, one has to ask – what country do they think they have been living in all these years?