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A curriculum for English excellence

I began teaching in 1974, just as the wider effects of the Primary Memorandum were appearing in secondary schools.

Pupils who were not expressing their ideas in clear sentences needed help but I was sternly warned against teaching grammar, correcting grammar mistakes or inhibiting what Brian McCabe recalls as the "kreativ riting" of any student. The bitter irony in the voice of my mentor - a wonderful teacher - left no doubt about his own disgusted incredulity after this latest diktat from HMI.

The rationale behind the prohibition of "discrete" grammar lessons or giving any sort of priority to accuracy of expression puzzled me too. I read a booklet endorsed by Bill Gatherer of the inspectorate, but still I saw no sense in what was being done.

Thirty-five years later, I am shamefully aware that my time in teaching will be noted as the era during which Scottish pupils - and many teachers - were failed by a system that actively discouraged excellence in language and literacy. Those teachers who tried to provide a sense of order and logic about the acquisition of language skills in English, French or German were derided as irrelevant, elitist, anachronistic and positively out of order.

One apparent reason for removing traditional grammar lessons might have been the warped idea that if there was no "gold standard" of accuracy and expression, the self-esteem of everyone would be cushioned. Another reason was that language skills would be more effectively acquired by some sort of mystical osmosis: no actual teaching of rules was required.

Of course, those who enforced the Primary Memorandum and all that came with it ignored the fact that such prescription and prohibition would work against the interests of the most vulnerable children. Wealthier, privileged homes compensated for the failures of state schools. The private sector stuck with grammar. The gulf of attainment and privilege and opportunity grew and grew. It is growing still.

We have a serious problem of adult illiteracy, and almost all universities complain about poor language and essay-writing skills among the brightest students. Even English graduates have been known to leave university less than confident about the structure of their own language.

We now have several generations with diminished command of language and - often in consequence - limited thought processes. Our prisons are full of people who cannot use their own language to negotiate their way through life and, as a direct result, have resorted to other, unacceptable methods. It is devastatingly simple: command of the English language empowers people; lack of language skills disables and disadvantages them.

Scotland's education system used to provide the opportunity for excellence. English, as a core subject was, in the 1960s and 70s, thoroughly "messed up". It is time we were honest with ourselves: we should finally confront the mistakes that were made and - in the name of a "curriculum for excellence" - sort them out.

Frances McKie teaches at Inverness Royal Academy.

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