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Chris McGovern: Deer Sur, I am unemploiable. I av a graid C in inglisch


As an employer, how would you feel if you received a job application letter that began, “Deer sur, I wud like to aplie for the veykansee you advatized in wenzdays paypa…”?

Perhaps, this is already a familiar experience. Most school-leavers these days carry with them a wad of GCSE and A-Level certificates. Do they really guarantee very much in terms of basic skills, let alone any great depth of subject knowledge? Beyond being a certificate of incompetence, what does a Grade C ‘pass’ in English actually represent? It is certainly not any guarantee that the holder can write a sentence or spell.

It should be good news then, that “The English Spelling Society” (TESS) is about to launch a campaign to improve matters. However, as with so much in education, all is not what it seems. Rather than seeking a way of improving children’s spelling, TESS has decided on a ‘cunning plan’ that could have been devised by Baldrick himself. Given that  “Blackadder” has just been included on the new ‘tougher’ syllabus for A-Level English, along with such literary worthies as Russell Brand, Dizzee Rascal and Jamie Oliver, this should not come as a complete surprise.

“The kids can’t spell, my lord Blackadder, so all we need to do is to change the spellings to make them easier.”

TESS believes that English spelling is unnecessarily difficult and, consequently, acts as an impediment to literacy. The problems would be much reduced, it claims, if we could make it more phonetic and do away with the silent letters and other irregularities. These are blamed for British children taking “up to two years longer learning to read and write compared to those in other European countries”.  TESS points out that, “one in six adults is functionally illiterate in the United Kingdom.”

However, if TESS had investigated educational standards a little more broadly it would have discovered that low levels of attainment are widespread and not confined to literacy. The OECD places our youngsters three years behind Shanghai pupils in mathematics, for example, by the age of 15.

The ‘solution’ to low attainment should not be sought in the further ‘dumbing down’ being proposed by TESS. We need to raise our expectations of children, rather than lowering them. English does present more spelling problems than other languages but it is, also, a much richer language than most. The combination of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French plus a range of other influences has given us twice as many words as most other European tongues. Nevertheless, much of the grammar is comparatively easy which explains why non-native speakers can make rapid progress in learning it.

The TESS solution is no solution at all. All it does is to provide an excuse for inadequate teaching and laziness. It also  jettisons centuries of language evolution that has done much to define the identity of the English-speaking world.

In a competitive jobs market most employers are, understandably, going to ‘bin’ the applications by ‘illiterates’.

TESS is short-sighted and self-indulgent if it thinks its proposals will do anything other then blight the employment prospects of school leavers.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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