The spread of semi-literacy must be stopped, says Brenda Leonard. As teachers prepare to implement the new GCSE English and English literature syllabuses this coming autumn, they might notice a figure weeping softly in the corner. That will be me - or if not me, someone like me, who has to cope with school-leavers who are, at best, semi-literate.
Anyone who is involved in training post-16-year-olds tells the same story - that every day they see evidence of children who have been failed by the education system.
Most of the students who sign on for NVQ courses at the training centre for which I work arrive clutching an assortment of GCSE certificates. Most - although by no means all - of these are below C grade; nevertheless, these youngsters have emerged at the end of 11 years of compulsory education with only the barest knowledge of the English language.
Students on our courses are expected to gain an NVQ level 2 in administration, accounting or IT in 10 weeks. But their progress in these subjects is seriously delayed by their lack of knowledge in the basic skills. We could teach them so much more by way of vocational skills, if we did not have to spend so much time teaching them the basics, which they should have acquired years ago.
Common mistakes include writing "i" instead of I when referring to themselves. "Thank you" is invariably written as one word instead of two; so are "all right" and "a lot". Very few students realise that "Referring to your letter of 15th April" is not a complete sentence; an explanation that a sentence needs a verb and a subject is met with bewilderment - although occasionally somebody does know that verbs are "doing" words!
"Could of" instead of "could have" suggests that their language skills are obtained through listening, rather than reading, but why has nobody explained conditional forms of verbs to them?
A computer-literate 16-year-old patiently explained to me the other day that nobody needed to learn to spell these days, because we can all use word processors with spell checking software. Quite apart from the fact that his reasoning would mean that he would need permanent access to a computer, his argument was slightly marred by the fact that the piece of work he was handing in at the time contained references to filing cabinet "draws" and "stationary" cupboards.
I wholeheartedly agree with the argument that education should be about more than just training people for work. With high levels of unemployment, which are unlikely to fall significantly in the near future, education should be about leisure pursuits, too. The fact remains, however, that most of us have to earn a living one way or another, and sending school-leavers out with only a rudimentary grasp of their language is sending them into the battle for a job with one hand tied behind their backs. It is a hard world for young people with few qualifications; allowing them to leave school without the ability even to write a decent letter of application for a job is to fail them completely.
Whenever questions are raised about educational standards, everybody takes up their predetermined positions.
Schools blame lack of resources; the Government points out how much money they are spending on education. How much money does it cost to teach somebody how to use a dictionary? How many extra resources are needed to ensure that apostrophes are not thrown at any word ending in s? Is it beyond the wit of teachers to explain what a sentence is, and when a full stop would be useful?
When our students hand in their work to be assessed, we mark any mistakes they have made, and hand the work back with an explanation, and with a request that mistakes are corrected. If the corrections are wrong the work is returned again. Students quickly grasp the idea that sloppy or incorrect work will not be accepted - and, although some of them resent this, with others it becomes a matter of pride to receive work back marked with the comment "Well done - no corrections required".
Brenda Leonard is a teacher and assessor of NVQs who lives in Pulborough, West Sussex