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The hitchhiker's guide to bad English

I HAVE no sooner knuckled down to my new year resolution of not getting flustered when, in one week, the latest reports state that S1-S2 is pretty well garbage for most kids and that new university entrants from Scottish schools need a course in basic grammar before they can manage a language other than English. Too much to cope with when I'm already downing double Lemsips for the winter sniffles. Both ends of the secondary school spectrum vilified? What's going wrong?

When I first started teaching 25 years ago, I was part of a primary-secondary liaison team. What impressed me then was how challenging and stimulating an experience P7 was for most pupils. As a young and naive probationer teacher, I was both excited and terrified. I was amazed by what these young children could do and scared because I couldn't see how the secondary school could accelerate from the starting blocks to keep up with the primary school.

The thrill of the challenge died swiftly as realisation dawned. At the time I taught English and there was no account taken of what the pupils had learnt in primary. Continuity was a closed book. Visiting the primary schools was regarded as a nice wee jaunt for me but I was not expected to come back with deep and meaningful ideas.

Pupils would continue to toil through whatever dust-covered textbooks could be unearthed from the darkness of ancient store cupboards. For me it was a journey started and not completed. And a quarter of a century later?

In most places we still haven't reached a destination. If you are a parent as well as a teacher, remember your child's P7 year. Chances are that they spent the year doing awesome things in the classroom. They looked forward to secondary school, imagining that secondary school would multiply the stimuli of primary and that they would learn a whole lot more.

Gallantly, most kids soldier on through the first few weeks waiting for something to happen and most times it doesn't. Educationists promulgate theories as to why this is so and what can be done. Fewer teachers? Many pupils cite the variety and number of teachers as a positive aspect of early secondary. Setting by ability in the different subjects? Teachers regularly contend with classes with a range of 5-14 levels from A to F and sometimes it's just so difficult to provide a meaningful learning experience for all the pupils. The brightest pupils often miss out because we are so busy supporting the poorest children.

The other end of the scale? Students leaving school unable to deal with basic grammar. Let's not fool ourselves - there is no doubt about it. Nor can it possibly be a surprise. A quick consultation with teaching colleagues in my age group - sort of mid-40s - reveals that most of us were not taught good old "general analysis" of sentence structure. If you doubt it, examine the standard of English in report card writing. Sometimes it's appalling. What hope is there for the school-leavers if the teachers can't write in sentences and manage the odd semi-decent piece of extended writing? Say what you like about how our ancestors were terrified into learning their nouns and verbs but they got the basics right.

So where are our masters in this catalogue of endemic failure? The headteachers of 300 primary and 80 secondary schools have recently taken quite a bashing for their poor leadership skills in HMI's latest Standards and Quality report. But is it not time to stop smacking unfortunates promoted beyond the level of their incompetence and start demanding guidance and resources from the Education Minister and her team.

I feel a bit like the guy at the petrol pump struggling not to go over pound;4.98 on the gauge. Why can't we just fill up the tank and get on with the journey? Thumbing a lift has lost its attraction.

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