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Rhea Williams is an experienced teacher of English who, in this article gives an account of the downward spiral of competence and interest in the English language among the main body of English teachers and their pupils in the United Kingdom.   It also bears witness to the unremitting incompetence of the nation's central and regional education authorities.  Until the courage is found to sweep aside the plethora of ineffectual "short cuts" to literacy that have been concocted and implemented over the past decades to the detriment of generations of our children and to return to the sound and proven teaching methods that produced a minimum acceptable level of language skills in the 1950s, this country will continue on its slide towards illiteracy accompanied by a total lack of concern among the very people who are being failed by the system.

                             Reminisences of a former teacher                             

Many years ago, (about 35, actually) I went into teaching full of hope and joy and completely lacking in cynicism.  It was such a fun job that not only was I thrilled at being allowed to teach, but was amazed that I was being paid as well.  It was so wonderful I felt I would have done the job for nothing.

All went well and the first inkling of things untoward did not occur until I had been teaching for three whole weeks.  I remember complaining to the deputy head that the kids did not appear to know when to use full stops and capital letters; and these children were 11 to 16 year olds.  He, who was just about to go to an all-expenses-paid "meeting" in the Caribbean, said that it didn't matter because soon people would not need to write, computers would do it all.  I was shocked.

The next, huge shock came about 10 years later. Successive governments had tinkered with the education system, each new government feeling that they had to fix things that weren't broken, in order to make their mark.  My role in teaching had been largely unaffected until it was decided that we were no longer allowed to teach punctuation or spelling.  I was shocked.  My Friday lessons had always been great fun; spelling tests with sweeties for those getting full marks...and yes, some were sugar-free should there be any diabetics in the class.  And how could one teach English without teaching punctuation?  "ee cummings" may have been making money but it was unlikely that any of the kids I taught were going to become an "ee cummings".  My pupils would need to know how to write a note to the milkman, to their child's teacher, to a future employer; they would need punctuation.

One of my daughter's friends went down south to train as a primary school teacher — teacher-training, for primary age kids.  He knew I was a teacher and so asked if he could send work to me to be checked.  Of course, I agreed.  He then said that in his three years of study he would have to write three essays; one per year.  I was shocked.  He sent the first essay to me.  It was full of spelling errors, incorrect tenses and tautology.  His grasp of language and where to use which words was tenuous, to say the least.  I read the essay, tried to fix it and sent it back.  He ignored most of my corrections as regards spelling, saying that his tutors couldn't spell either so it didn't matter if he made mistakes.  And this boy was going to be teaching people's precious children!  I was shocked AGAIN!

As the years passed, I became more and more disillusioned as syllabus after syllabus seemed to concentrate on imagination, rather than perfecting the use of language.  Children had to use empathy and marks in exams were given for the flimsiest of reasons, but not deducted for bad spelling, grammar or punctuation.  In moderation meetings, where we had to discuss how we marked papers in order that we could all mark to an agreed standard, I was consistently told I was marking too hard, spelling and punctuation didn't matter if the child got a vaguely correct answer.  And I was specifically told not to mark for spelling; remember, there were targets to be met.  Children who could barely write a coherent sentence were not allowed to fail.  I was SHOCKED? Absolutely.

So finally, I left.  I had been fighting a losing battle.

And English was not helped by the BBC either.  Initially the BBC used received pronunciation.  Its news readers, continuity announcers and others, all spoke 'Queen's English', an English that could be understood by everyone who spoke any form of English.  Little by little, the Politically Correct brigade got in and local accents were introduced, ostensibly to allow people to feel 'included.'  What it actually did was to remove a wonderful source of spoken English that was worth copying, exactly because everyone could understand it.  The result was a mish-mash of accents and dialects that many who lived in areas where a different accent or dialect was used, could not understand.  This was divisive, rather than inclusive.  With the disappearance of the sound of good English went the use of good English.  More and more we heard, 'I done it', 'I seen...' 'E axsed me...' etc. and nobody corrected things.

Sadly we are still in the era of poor speech; we have reports of children not speaking until the age of 3 because nobody speaks to them, nobody engages them in conversation.  We live in an era of computers, television and multiple visual inputs with less and less of the spoken word being heard or learned.  The more one complains about this sad state of affairs, the more one is told that one is being old-fashioned, computers are the way forward; and our governments are complicit.

The older I get, the more I fear for our language.  English is a most amazing tongue taking words from many other languages and making them its own.  If we do not take care of our language we will lose our ability to describe with precision, to make others understand exactly what we wish them to understand, to maintain our place in an increasingly competitive world.  Long live Queen's English.