The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

March 26th, 2006

Reading, writing and thoughtlessness

Learning to read well is one of life’s greatest joys, not least because reading is power. The same is true of learning to write well. The ability to write clearly and simply is both pleasurable and very useful. Fortunately, almost everybody is capable of both and both can easily be taught. Unfortunately, these days few schoolchildren and students learn either.

Despite all the money that the government has thrown at education, huge numbers of children arrive at secondary school unable to read properly for their age or for their studies. That is well known, despite new Labour’s empty claims of success in education. What is less well known is that most students arrive at university or at colleges of further education unable to write properly. Most of them have little or no idea of how to set out an essay or of how to express themselves in writing at all.

This is not merely my own opinion. The Royal Literary Fund (RLF) last week published a report, called Writing Matters, on student writing, and the author Hilary Spurling gave a short lecture at the Royal Society of Literature summarising its findings. “Most contemporary British students arriving at university lack the basic ability to express themselves in writing,” she said. “Growing numbers are simply not ready for the demands that higher education is — or should be — making of them.”

These findings come from a scheme that the fund set up in 1999 to send professional writers as RLF fellows into universities and colleges to help students with the basic skills of writing essays, reports or job applications. Since then more than 130 writers have worked in more than 70 institutions.

“What is worrying,” wrote one, “is that these young people are students of English literature at an ‘elite’ university. They ought to have attained, by this stage, a reasonably high level of written proficiency, but they are plainly floundering. They have genuine difficulty in writing a basic English sentence.” What the fellows discovered in all disciplines, at all levels, in all institutions, was, they unanimously felt, shocking.

It is indeed shocking. Quite apart from the unspeakable waste of young people’s abilities and the lifelong impoverishment of their minds, there is a wider social problem. Inarticulate and semi-literate graduates fall straight into what is now recognised as Britain’s skills gap. It is very odd, at a time when people take an increasingly utilitarian view of universities as places to produce workers, that they increasingly fail to do so.

The director of the Heads, Teachers & Industry trust recently said “there is a growing sense in industry that graduates are no more useful as employees than school-leavers. Transferable and functional skills such as communication, writing and comprehension are lacking, and companies often find it more cost-effective to employ school-leavers and train them themselves.”

Across the country employers say the same thing, in both private and public sectors. The graduate recruitment manager for Network Rail told a researcher that his organisation currently has to reject 50% of all job applications from graduates because they are “gobbledygook”. A recent CBI report suggests that low basic skills lose a typical business with 50 employees £165,000 a year, while separate figures published last week by the TUC estimate such shortages cost companies £10 billion a year.

There cannot be a university teacher in the country who would not agree that most students now have serious problems in writing because they have not been taught how to order and express their thoughts. Talk to any gathering of dons.

Foreigners from the former Soviet bloc and the Indian subcontinent almost read and write better English than British natives. British Indians who can afford it are beginning to send their children to school in India, and West Indians send theirs to the Caribbean, where standards are higher.

Why should a problem so well known to those directly concerned be so little known to the general public? Perhaps it is because politicians and the commentariat belong to the tiny minority whose children have learnt to write effectively at the tiny minority of schools that still teach it. But there is a great divide in this country between the few young people who know how to write clearly and the great majority who don’t. It is a terrible injustice. Articulacy is now a privilege for the few.

Good writing isn’t just a matter of presentation. As my ferocious history teacher used to say, if you can’t express something clearly, it is because you don’t understand it clearly. And even if you do understand it, if you haven’t learnt how to order your thoughts and construct a line of argument, you will appear not to do so. If students cannot write clearly, that is evidence that they cannot think clearly; they have not been encouraged to do so. But why not?

There are many directions in which one could point a finger of blame — at bad schools, at bad teaching, at the shortage of able teachers now that able women have many other opportunities besides teaching, at failed methods of teaching reading, at child-centred learning and other disastrous educational orthodoxies, at the abandonment of grammar and learning by heart, at the distractions of computers, at tick-boxes and coursework, which encourage laziness and internet plagiarism.

If the chancellor throws even more taxpayers’ money at schools, as he promises, without addressing any of that he will be wasting money to betray yet more children and students.

The RLF is providing a great public service. It has helped and continues to help thousands of students to write more effectively and confidently. Professional writers know about the practical business of writing simply and clearly and seem to be good at communicating this skill. Their results as fellows were good, and rapid; “all the students we successfully helped”, said the report, “expressed something close to joy at the result”. As so often, this inspired and pioneering work is the result of an independent charity, free of government orthodoxies, targets and bureaucracy.

I hope it remains that way, and that in his determination to colonise the voluntary sector, Gordon Brown doesn’t get his joyless, statist hands on it.