One of the things I like doing best – apart from talking, walking, eating, drinking, reading, sitting on buses and consuming popular culture in its many forms – is writing.
Writing is bloody brilliant. Just scribble or tap away and out pour your thoughts, your emotions, jokes, propaganda, malice, pornography or poetry. Whatever floats your boat.
Whether you’re writing academic essays, letters of complaint to the local council about the vast volume of dog poo on the pavement
articles, pitch documents, tweets, status updates or blog posts, nothing beats the feeling of satisfaction you get when you nail the phrase you need and find the right word to spell out what you want to say.
Obviously I’m writing this as someone who is a compulsive blogger and as someone who has written professionally since the 90s for both newspapers and TV. As someone with an English degree and as someone whose job it is to try and help people who find writing an absolute bloody nightmare. Who see spelling, punctuation and grammar as the work of the devil himself.
Basically, to get into a university in the UK, you need what is known as Level 2 English – either a GCSE in English or else a qualification known as Functional Skills English, which is basically a qualification that tests competence in reading, writing and speaking and listening (making presentations to a group).
In a school sixth form it is unlikely that you would get many students who lack this qualification but in the world of Further Education, there are lots of people who – for a variety of reasons – just haven’t made the grade. They may have come from overseas or just missed getting a C Grade at GCSE. They therefore have lots of anxieties about English and it is my job to coax them through the tests. A lot of them are very, very nervous indeed.
Obvious English is a pretty complex language and respect to the overseas students for attempting to get their heads round our crazy spellings and bizarre grammatical rules – apostrophes anyone?
We all know the jokes about the greengrocer’s apostrophe – tomatoe’s anyone? but trying to break bad habits that have built up over many years can be tricky.
In case you’re wondering about the apostrophe (which I doubt), it all boils down to Old English, which I hated with a passion as a student. This explains it far better than I ever could:
I guess what I find most disturbing is the extraordinary number of British born students who struggle with – in particular – written English. Not just students in the functional skills class but even those who have got a decent grade at GCSE.
Obviously I shouldn’t be surprised because study after study shows that a huge percentage of the British public is what is termed functionally illiterate.
Here’s an article from 2009:
Yes, it’s from the Telegraph, which always has an axe to grind, but study after study has shown the same thing. In 1999, the Moser Report found that as many as 7 millon adults in Britain had problems with writing and numbers; this prompted the development of literacy and numeracy strategies in schools and embedding basic skills in colleges.
Personally I think the answer is very simple. It’s what wealthy people do when their children need help – hire a tutor. Any child who reaches secondary school and is still struggling with English (or Maths, or anything) should be given one to one support until they get better.
I have been doing a bit of tutoring – and finding it very enjoyable – and know that nothing beats someone sitting with you, answering your questions and showing you how to do things the right way. One to one tutoring removes the embarrassment of sticking your hand up in class and getting it wrong. Once you’ve done that a few times, you definitely won’t be doing it again – you’ll be hiding in the corner and developing all sorts of strategies to avoid being asked questions. These can include everything from silence to extreme rudeness and aggression; all based on the terror of being found out.
This process is described in great detail in a fantastic book I read by a man called John Holt called “How Children Fail”
Yes, it’s from the 60s and the 60s is the time when education went bad (according to today’s politicians). It’s the time when all sorts of progressive nonsense polluted the classroom and turned our children into wanton savages.
Yeah, yeah, yeah…
Whatever your political point of view, check out this book and see for yourself that it is full of fantastic stuff that explains why kids stop learning. Fear and embarrassment rank pretty highly.
Which is why they need one to one tuition. By a real person who can listen, not a computer or a TV programme. Critics will point to the cost, but how much has been spunked away over the past few years on electronic whiteboards or educational software? The smart money is already pouring into what is known as edu-business; let’s face it, if Murdoch’s getting his snout in the trough, there are profits to be made.
I’ve already linked to this article before but I don’t want people to forget so I’ll link to it again.
I’d also like to link to this as well:
Obviously education has always been a business, with firms fighting over government contracts for books, equipment and building projects. And then there is the private sector. But we seem to have entered a new and more rapacious phase, with more and more opportunities for business to make a killing.
How does this relate to my original point? As I said, I love writing and I enjoy helping people become more confident with it. Writing is not only pleasure but power and if we really want to make people better at it we need to give them real support not voguish schemes that only serve to enrich the government’s cronies – the private equity boss behind Cognita donated money to Michael Gove during the 2010 election.
Give everybody the head start that better off kids have and you’ll soon see a nation of writers rather than a miserable country where an embarrassingly large number of adults don’t know a comma from a full stop.