The Cambridge exam board report on standards of English of 16-year-olds in 1980, 1994 and 1995 is frustratingly inconclusive given the concerns about oral and written communication expressed by employers and universities, and the launch next week of the Government's Better English Campaign.
According to the Cambridge analysis (page 2), those taking O-level English in 1980 were markedly better at spelling and grammar than those achieving GCSE grades A to C in 1995. It is tempting to see in this evidence that things are indeed not what they used to be. But the pupils who sat the GCE paper designed for the top 20 per cent in 1980 were a highly select group. In contrast, GCSE English in 1995 was taken by over 90 per cent of the age group. They sat an exam which gave much more emphasis to speaking and listening and one in which candidates were intended to gain credit for what they could do rather than be marked down for what they could not; an exam a higher proportion were supposed to pass.
To achieve that the GCSE syllabus was to be more relevant, appealing and accessible. But was it supposed to let standards of written accuracy slide? And are insecure spelling and grammar all that employers and universities worry about? Or do "written and oral communication skills" imply a much broader inability to express oneself? If so, is this evidence of an even wider failing of GCSE English to achieve practical relevance? Or are employers and admissions tutors simply fishing in a wider pool of applicants, since twice as many now go to university as in 1980?
The Cambridge report admits it is unable to say whether English standards were worse in 1995 than 1980. In fact it casts doubt on whether it is possible to answer such a question. It is not just that the examiners are fallible and that fixing standards - especially through imposed curriculum change - is a difficult and imprecise affair. English syllabuses now require different skills. At the same time a more verbal culture means informal language is used more widely and the distinction between the way people speak and the language they write is eroding. So 15 years on, neither examiners, nor the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority which monitors such changes, are able to tell us definitively whether standards of English are better, worse or just different. These are questions of values as much as fact.
Nor is it clear whether employers are concerned about grammatical transgressions or a more general inarticulacy. The values of the Better English Campaign, on the other hand, are clear and laudable (TES2, page 2). Whatever their background and accent, every child needs to be empowered by a grasp of the common language; to be able to write and enunciate his or her thoughts in a standard and comprehensible English when that is called for.
The campaign may also improve our understanding - and that of English examiners - of what better English means. While it has conventions that aid meaning and precision, standard usage is not immutably fixed. It is constantly evolving, not owned by any one group, class or age and is only one aspect of clarity. Communication will not happen at all if the diffident are struck dumb by fear of committing a faux pas.