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The director of admissions at Cambridge University has announced that because of the profusion of companies and websites offering to write personal statements, these essays submitted as part of applications are no longer marked by admissions tutors. Externally marked, supposedly reliable, A Level grades are what count now because it is, apparently, impossible to tell any more if the student has had help writing their personal statement.

The director of admissions at Cambridge University has announced that because of the profusion of companies and websites offering to write personal statements, these essays submitted as part of applications are no longer marked by admissions tutors. Externally marked, supposedly reliable, A Level grades are what count now because it is, apparently, impossible to tell any more if the student has had help writing their personal statement.

But t'was ever thus? The fact that any students can now purchase help online doesn't change the fact that any coursework, personal statement or other non-exam based performance has always been open to accusations of plagiarism, cheating, or parental or teacher involvement.  As one independent school teacher told Roderick Smith, director of admissions at Birmingham University, "Of course we help our students with their personal statements, their parents are paying £7,000 a term!"

So is the difference now that any student with some money can now use the internet to get someone to write their statement for them, rather than just those with access to teachers and parents with the right cultural capital?

Perhaps the more interesting, and less well trodden, question to ask is what systemic problems give rise to such circumstances, and how we might change them. It seems obvious that a system in which there is a single, linear ladder of success for students, in which externally marked exams are valued over teacher judgements, and in which the careers of teachers are judged by the success of their students on this ladder, makes some form of 'cheating' inevitable.  A system with a broader view of success, that promoted a love of learning and fulfilment of potential over instrumentalism would not only serve students better, but also perhaps mitigate these kinds of problems.

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