She wrote her notes on her thigh . . . (the invigilator wouldn't have dared look there)
John Meagher and Michelle Doyle on the old and new ways of cheating
Last Saturday afternoon, a Leaving Cert student sat down at her computer and vented her frustration on the hugely popular website, Boards.ie.
Starting a new thread called 'Cheating in the Leaving Cert', "Samskeyti" -- named after a song from Icelandic band Sigur Ros -- detailed the ways in which her classmates had cheated in exams over the previous days and got away with it.
"The majority of students use the fact that the toilets are in our PE hall and that the superintendents have no reason to follow them in," she wrote.
"The students hide notes written from before the exam in their socks and pants and some even got away with having a phone on their lap for an entire paper and reading saved messages from it. Others used the bathroom to call students from other schools and got full answers on questions."
Samskeyti concluded her post by asking other users of the message board if she should inform teachers at her school or get in touch with the Department of Education, while in subsequent posts pointed out that cheaters could deprive legitimate candidates of a college place.
The thread generated more conversation than she could have ever imagined. By 11am on Thursday, it ran to 75 pages, and more than 1,100 posts. Several respondents also spoke of their own experiences of cheating, while others urged the original poster not to "snitch" on her classmates.
Such was the controversy it generated that it was picked up by several newspapers within 48 hours and on Monday the State Examinations Commission (SEC) confirmed it was investigating the matter.
For Brendan Gildea, one of the country's foremost maths teachers, the controversy is not surprising.
"Cheating in the Leaving and the Junior Certs happens, that's for sure, and it's getting worse," he says.
"There's such pressure to get the required CAO points that students will take all kinds of risks; and a lot of them believe they can get away with it because in many cases it's very difficult to prove that they are cheating.
"In my experience, the typical cheater is someone who is clever, but just hasn't put in the work in the months leading up to the exam.
"The cheating ranges from something as unsophisticated as looking over someone else's shoulder and copying their answers to taking one of several toilet breaks and checking answers on their internet-enabled phones.
"I've heard of situations where students go to the toilet 10 times during a three-hour paper and I think it's fair to say that's suspicious. But it's not easy for the supervisor to say 'no, you can't go to the bathroom'.
"Maybe that was done years ago, but in this day and age you can't be telling an 18-year-old they have to stay at his or her desk."
Since its establishment in 2003, the SEC has taken action against students caught cheating.
Official penalties range from withholding part or all of the results to being debarred from entering state exams for a specified period.
Last year, 92 grades were withheld at Leaving and Junior Cert levels but nobody has yet been debarred from sitting state exams. According to one teacher who does not wish to be named, it's unlikely anybody will be barred.
"In practice, it would be a very difficult penalty to impose. You'd probably be talking about the SEC having to take legal action and that might be a very unpopular route to go down. It's also very difficult to prove that someone is cheating.
For instance, they're not supposed to have phones on them, but nobody gets frisked on the way to the exam hall. It is a big problem, and I'm not sure what can be done about it, especially as I think cheating has become more brazen."
It hardly gets more brazen if you are a female student and writing copious notes on your legs.
"In girls' schools where they sit exams in their uniforms, girls often write notes on their legs, cross their legs and then read the notes," says a UCD student who sat the Leaving Cert last year. "In fairness, I can't imagine an invigilator pulling some random girl aside and asking her to pull up her skirt to prove she wasn't a cheat. It just wouldn't happen.
"In my brother's year, they used to write maths and chemistry equations on the inside of their water bottle labels.
"Obviously, loads of people write on the inside of their pencil cases and under those plastic calculator covers. There are only two or three supervisors to watch over 100 students. You're hardly going to get caught."
Anther student, who sat the Leaving two years ago, recalls a classmate's painstakingly planned effort to cheat in the history paper.
"One of the guys had an essay that he typed up before the exam, printed out in minuscule writing and brought in with him. He got caught pretty much immediately, but the invigilator just told him to throw it away."
But such methods of cheating are positively crude when compared with those who use technology to get an unfair advantage.
"Pretty much everyone has the internet on their phone or can borrow one" says a second-level student, "and all they have to do is ask to go to the bathroom. Even if you're followed down, nobody can come into the cubicle with you and all you have to do is Google the answer. If you keep the sound settings on mute, what you're doing won't be heard."
The lengths that some cheaters will go to almost defies belief.
"A guy in my year recorded himself reading all his English essays really slowly and then uploaded the recordings onto his iPod. He then put the iPod under his jumper and put the headphone up his sleeve.
"That way he could rest his hand on his ear and write down what he was listening to."
Some exams are easier to cheat in than others. "I cheated in the crafts section of my Leaving Cert exam," says a journalist. "I was doing calligraphy and you're allowed bring your own parchment into the exam hall. Drawing lines for your lettering is an essential part of being precise but it takes at least an hour to do, so before the exam, I lined the parchment very carefully and with very faint pencil.
"Only a few guys in my class did art that year and all of them did the same. Our teacher knew about it. In fact she encouraged us to do it and assured us we wouldn't be caught. I'm convinced I got a better grade as a result of that. My calligraphy was perfect that day and it wouldn't have been as good had I had to spend much of the time ruling the parchment."
Browsing through Samskeyti's thread on Boards.ie, one is struck by the sense of honour that many of the posters derived from getting away with cheating in exams. Others suggested that their sense of entitlement mirrored that of the high-profile bankers who have been disgraced since the economy's collapse.
With cheating generating such discussion, it was hardly surprising that the low-budget 1998 film How to Cheat in the Leaving Cert was uploaded to YouTube this week.
Controversial at the time of its release, and featuring the acting talents of Chris de Burgh and Senator Eoghan Harris, it is an enjoyable heist caper that documents the attempts of a group of disgruntled students to break into the Athlone warehouse where the exam papers were being stored and to prepare flawless answers for each.
In its own way, it taps into the dreams of many students to buck the system.
Meanwhile, widespread exam cheating looks set to continue.
"As long as there is such pressure to get points for desired courses, there will be cheating," Brendan Gildea says. "Anybody who thinks differently is being very, very naïve."