Opinion: Decline in student literacy a cause for concern

Stephen Gold

As someone brought up with very little money, whose life has been enhanced beyond measure by education, news of further decline in the literacy and numeracy of Scotland’s children feels very personal to me. But at least social attitudes have much improved since I was a child.

I was the first in my family to go to university, and took my law degree at the University of Strathclyde. Today, it is one of Scotland’s top law schools, but it was not then. I walked through its slightly shabby portals in 1970, when the law school had existed for barely five years. It was regarded by many in the ancient universities as arriviste and inferior. Later, in a shiny new building, it had a room called the Law Workshop, which provoked a visiting sheriff to peer in and ask querulously, “What do you make in there – wigs?”

I remember debating in the hallowed Glasgow University Union, and being greeted thus by one of my opponents: “May I warmly welcome our guests from the University of Strathclyde, an institution not so much redbrick as papier-mâché. As one perambulates through its concrete cloisters, one is charmed by the melodious sound of pupil calling unto pupil, ‘Jeezo! The bell has went!’”

When I began looking for a training contract, it swiftly became clear that this snooty view was not confined to academia. Many law firms considered Strathclyde so far below the salt as to be scarcely in the same room. Today, things are very different, and not just for Strathclyde. Graduates of Scottish universities ancient and new are finding jobs in every kind of organisation, most of which take great care to design their recruitment processes so as to achieve equal opportunity. There are still Luddite outposts, but we seem largely to have discarded the rich variety of prejudices which disfigured the landscape decades ago.

But as these clouds scud away, another darkens the horizon: the alarming number of graduates now emerging with good degrees, but unable to spell, punctuate, and use grammar as it is intended; the kind of clever, hard-working young people described to me recently by an exasperated senior partner as thinking that syntax is something levied on the price of drugs. For them, “the bell has went” is not a punchline, but normal speech. And they are the cream.

I do not romanticise traditional education. A good deal of it mirrored Hobbes’ view of mankind’s natural condition: poor, nasty, brutish and short. But I will be grateful forever to the teachers who dinned into me a vocabulary and knowledge of the rules which have made an incalculable difference to my life.

And I rail against the reckless destruction of a culture in which it was unquestioned by teachers and students alike that having, in Profesor Lindsay Paterson’s phrase, this “core knowledge”, was non-negotiable.

In every walk of life, facility with language is fundamental. But do students agree? Recently, I came across a news report from a leading university, where a professor was very concerned about his students’ poor writing. “Each week they were asked to compose a one-page memo, which he would read and mark. The memos would answer a simple question from their textbooks. As the professor said, he wanted the assignment to be more about conveying their analyses than testing their ability to get the analyses right.”

Surely the students were grateful to this dedicated man for going the extra mile on their behalf? Not at all; in a vivid proof that no good deed goes unpunished, the students complained so loudly to the dean that the professor was urged to stop. The students said that in today’s world, knowing how to write was unnecessary. “Emails and tweets are the medium of exchange. Therefore, they argued, the constant back-and-forth gives one an opportunity to correct misunderstandings caused by unclear thinking and writing.”

The dean, in an equally vivid proof that there is no inevitable link between brains and sense, insisted that the professor make the writing exercise voluntary. By the end of term, only one student, a non-native English speaker, was submitting the assignments.

Such attitudes are widespread, and the result is that employers have to fill in the gaps left by school and university, for their own protection as much as their trainees’ development. It surprises me that the business community is not far more vocal in demanding change. Perhaps this latest data will make them turn up the heat.

To John Swinney and those culpable for the alleged Curriculum for Excellence, the message seems plain: Ask not for whom the bell has went. It has went for thee.

By Stephen Gold, Solicitor and Principal of Stephen Gold Consulting. A version of this article first appeared in The Journal of the Law Society of Scotland.

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