The Rise And Fall Of Standards In The English Language

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The following article demonstrates yet again what can and does happen when ‘dumbing down’ becomes acceptable within our education system here in the UK, and what our current Conservative led coalition government proposes to do about it. It clearly highlights the appalling standard of the English language in this country at present, and this time the focus is on written English.

“Teenagers will lose up to five per cent of marks in GCSE examinations if they fail to display high standards of written English.”

The rules, which are likely to apply to all subjects, including mathematics and science, follow claims that thousands of children leave school without being able to compose a sentence, spell difficult words or write a coherent letter or email.

The move, to be outlined in an education White Paper next week, would reverse a Labour decision seven years ago to scrap rewards for good literacy.

The English LanguageMichael Gove, the Education Secretary, said the building blocks of English had been “demolished by those who should have been giving our children a solid foundation in learning”. Business leaders such as Sir Stuart Rose, the Marks & Spencer chairman, have complained that too many young people leave school “not fit for work”.

Last night, the change was backed by educationalists who suggested it would give schools a greater incentive to train pupils in the basics of spelling and grammar. The written English requirements will be among a string of radical reforms designed to restore rigour to the examination system in England and promote the study of traditional subjects.

Next week’s White Paper will also propose:

  • A return to traditional A-levels by moving away from bite-sized “modular” courses in some subjects in favour of tests at the end of two years of study.
  • Allowing universities to script A-level exams and syllabuses to ensure sixth-form courses act as a better preparation for a degree.
  • The introduction of an “English Baccalaureate” that rewards pupils for gaining five good GCSEs in English, maths, science, foreign languages and a humanities subject.
  • A ban on schools using vocational courses as “equivalent” qualifications to boost their ranking in GCSE league tables.
  • A review of the National Curriculum to outline the key “bodies of knowledge” that children should master at each stage of their education.
  • A reading test for all six year-olds to identify those struggling the most after a year of school, ensuring they receive extra tuition.

The Coalition reforms are being billed as an attempt to reverse 13 years of “dumbing down” by Labour. Mr Gove has been critical of changes to the exams system which he claimed had widened the gulf between independent and state schools. Many fee-paying schools have shifted pupils towards alternative exams following claims that mainstream tests are too easy.

In a speech, Mr Gove attacked Labour’s decision to abandon requirements for pupils to spell correctly and use proper punctuation and grammar in GCSE exams.

In the past, five per cent of marks in all GCSE exams were ring-fenced for high standards of written English. But the rules were scrapped in 2003.

Good spelling and punctuation is still rewarded in some exams, but the number of marks available differs between subjects and often candidates are only rewarded for good English in certain questions. They are usually told which questions these are.

Mr Gove said: “Thousands of children – including some of our very brightest – leave school unable to compose a proper sentence, ignorant of basic grammar, incapable of writing a clear and accurate letter.

“And it’s not surprising when the last government explicitly removed the requirement to award a set number of marks for correct spelling, punctuation and grammar in examinations.

“The basic building blocks of English were demolished by those who should have been giving our children a solid foundation in learning.

“Under this Government we will insist that our exams, once more, take proper account of the need to spell, punctuate and write a grammatical sentence.”

The move, which will not at first apply to A-levels, was given a cautious welcome by examiners. Jim Sinclair, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards, said: “The previous system fell into disrepute because of cases where candidates were writing competently, spelling flawlessly and using correct grammar – therefore picking up the five per cent – but the subject content of their answers was rubbish.”

He added: “I wholeheartedly support the desire to ensure that when young people leave formal education that they are functionally literate and numerate but I would caution against using crude instruments to disproportionately reward spelling, punctuation and grammar.”

Prof Alan Smithers, the director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: “Clear expression is evidence of clear thought. It is reasonable to expect accurate spelling and good use of grammar in an exam. “The results mean less if the examiner is trying to project on to a poorly written answer what he or she thinks the candidate was attempting to say.”

Like all commonsense approaches to a problem, I suspect this one will be bitterly fought against by the teachers, headmasters and school boards who condone ‘dumbing down’ in their blinkered belief that school ‘League Tables’ mean more to them than the education of the children in their charge, as at every level, Mr Gove struggles to get it through parliament and into law…

1 Comment
  1. Leigh says

    Thoughtful article. Here in the states, my impression is that teachers and principals (headmasters) would embrace positive changes, but parent-controlled school boards worry that their delicate football star offsprings’ egos might be permanently damaged if he were forced to face the results of his pathetic academic (used loosely) results.

    May the standards rise again.

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