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EIS joins row over teachers' grammar

The Educational Institute of Scotland's deputy general secretary gave a surprising, if cautious, endorsement this week to the latest concerns over grammar.

Fred Forrester was responding to calls by Charles Jones, professor of English language at Edinburgh University, for teachers to be given short courses in the basics of grammar. Professor Jones claimed that "the teaching of English in the classroom has collapsed", and sought the support of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers for postgraduate remedial classes.

Mr Forrester said "the professor is somewhat over-the-top and unsubtle." But he did agree that "we have departed too much from the teaching of grammar, punctuation and syntax".

Support for Professor Jones also came from Christian Kay, his opposite number at Glasgow University, who complained that there are "substantial numbers of people arriving at university who don't know what an adjective is".

The EIS chief, while stressing he was only expressing "the thoughts of Fred", said he did not believe anybody would support a return to the sort of emphasis on parsing and subordinate clauses which simply erected barriers to learning.

But he added: "That is not the same as saying that we should oppose clear writing which does not make glaring errors. There is growing evidence of such errors even in respectable journals. The trend over the past 30 years has been that good communication is the only thing that matters. But a poor grasp of the technicalities of English actually impedes good communication, leading to linguistic imprecision and abuse."

The Government's view is that there is no evidence of any such collapse. It cautions against false comparisons with a "golden age" when a much narrower age and ability range stayed on at school and went to university.

Employers and academics have continued to voice complaints, however, but these these were dismissed as "pernicious nonsense" by Andy Shanks, convener of the English subject panel at the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

He said markers and examiners believe that "able pupils are comfortable and skilled in using language and that has not changed. Now, quite rightly, we are expecting high standards from all our pupils, not just the minority."

HMI have highlighted weaknesses in pupils' writing. But "Exam results have reflected the expectations of the system," as one inspector put it. The question is whether these expectations are high enough.

A study by the Scottish Council for Research in Education looked at Higher grade exam performance in four subjects including English between 1987-94. It concluded that improved results had not been bought at the expense of a slippage in standards.

But SCE examiners reported last year that many Standard grade English pupils were tripped up by weaknesses in punctuation, sentence construction, paragraphing and spelling. Basic faults in English were also hampering candidates across the five main modern languages at both Standard and Higher grades, the examiners found.

The most recent survey of attainment in English, published last year under the Assessment of Achievement Programme, showed a decline in both reading and writing standards from primary 4 to secondary 2. Across all the writing tasks set for S2 pupils, the AAP reported, "over half the pupils demonstrated inadequate mechanical skills; their scripts showed weak sentence structure, infrequent use of link words, absence of paragraphing, and spelling and punctuation poor enough to be obtrusive".

The Government continues to hope it can turn things round with its pound;24 million investment in early literacy and numeracy, the target setting initiative and fuller implementation of the 5-14 programme.

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