Not yet the last writes

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Handwriting is still a skill that children need to be taught, but technology is snapping at its heels, says Peter Wilby

nother week, another policy. Just in case you have time on your hands after designing policies for bullying, drugs, Britishness, healthy eating, uniform - and, for all I know, you probably need one for tying shoelaces - you are now to have one for handwriting.

At least you will if, as reported last month, a team from London University's Institute of Education has its way. Given Labour's propensity to jump on any passing bandwagon, no doubt such a policy will soon be a requirement. Moreover, the institute's folk want the Government to prescribe a national handwriting style - though, if ministers are going to tell everyone what to do, it is hard to see why schools need their own policies.

I shall not be so foolish as to argue that handwriting is such a redundant skill that schools can ignore it completely. Computers will not lead to the end of writing, any more than photographs led to the end of painting. But we need to think carefully about the uses of handwriting.

I still write a few personal letters by hand, though my writing is so poor that recipients are unlikely to regard it as a courtesy. I don't write notes for the milkman because I don't have a milkman.

Curiously, I write out some things by hand that once I used to type: for example, addresses on envelopes and entries on forms. This is because you cannot scroll an envelope or form into a computer as you could into a typewriter. But I am aware that this is down to my inadequate skills with keyboard and printer, plus more and more forms come as email attachments.

So I could get by without ever writing anything for someone else to read - apart from my signature, which is supposed to be illegible. This will be true for nearly all adults in future. Writing may still be used in some situations but you can be sure that, before long, it will be overtaken by technology-based alternatives. These may be less reliable, and more trouble. They will be used, none the less, as pocket calculators today are used for the simplest addition or subtraction.

The motor force of what political theorists call "late capitalism" is to convince you that what you once did for yourself can now be done only by purchasing an expensive gadget or service. The next big thing, we are told, is voice-recognition technology. Just mutter at your computer, and it will turn your mumblings into text.

The truth is that the main use of handwriting is now to pass tests and exams. This is clear from the institute's report, which argues that children who cannot write fast and legibly will be at a disadvantage. This is not only because they will get down fewer words, which the examiners will not be able to read. It is also because, if they struggle to form letters, children's concentration on this motor skill can detract from their higher-level brain functions.

Where does this leave us? I fear it leaves schools compelling children to master another skill for which they see limited use. The perennial classroom cry of "why do we have to do this?" will go up again.

Schools need to be clear as to why they are making children write at all, rather than insisting on keyboard skills that will be more essential in future. In fairness to the institute team, I suppose that is an argument for developing a policy.

I am not proposing the abolition of writing by hand. Far from it. But it is just one medium of communication; schools have traditionally neglected others (speaking, dance) or regarded them as largely optional (music, visual art), even though they were once dominant. Now a new form advances by the day. An old one has to be justified afresh.

Peter Wilby is a writer and commentator.

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