It seems hard to believe that I am now old enough to utter such phrases as, ‘When I was young …’ But I am. A couple of weeks ago, in Western Australia, Year 12 students received their final results, which dictate what universities they can enter and what courses they can take. After the results were released, the West Australian newspaper reported that only 17.1% of students achieved a scaled score of 50% or more in stage two English. However, the newspaper also said that, regardless of whether they achieved a score of 50%, two-thirds of students will still be eligible for university entry.
Furthermore, when asked about this statistic, the President of the English Teachers Association of WA said that there was no longer a need for students to achieve a scaled score of fifty as there were so many ways to get around failing English, and that it didn’t even get mentioned much anymore as an issue because there was a plethora of ways to get into uni.
I was a little gob-smacked by this. When I was young – there, I’ve said it – passing English in the final year exams was mandatory for university entry and, what’s more, people genuinely believed it was important to pass English because a good grasp of English was essential to being able to successfully study at university. Not to mention essential for being able to get on in life. Okay, this was twenty years ago, but has the world changed so much that a competent grasp of English is no longer deemed desirable?
I teach creative writing at university, in between writing novels. Some students I’ve taught have a poor grasp of basic grammar, punctuation and spelling. Because of this, it makes their creative writing very hard to understand and it is often confusing to read. I fail them, not to be mean or to prove a point but because I believe that for a story or a poem to work, it must be readable. I also give the student as much feedback as possible to help them improve, including directing them to bridging courses that may be appropriate. Yet I’ve had conversations with other tutors who will pass the same student in another written assessment because – in their words – you can’t fail someone for being bad at English. Why not? If someone is unable to communicate a message, isn’t that a failure?
This might sound like an exaggeration but I feel as if our world will be much poorer if we strive for anything less than english competency. It doesn’t matter what job you have after you finish university, you will still be required to communicate with people. If people can’t understand what you’ve written, or take a different meaning from it to that which you’ve intended, then how can you succeed in your job? Indeed, in some professions, such as nursing, poorly written notes can have dire consequences.
And I don’t mean to blame anyone – it certainly isn’t the fault of teachers or anyone else. I think it’s a collective failure of contemporary times – how sad that we live in a society where it is seen to be okay to provide ‘ways around’ the requirement to be competent at English? How can we condone a university system where this is acceptable? It makes a mockery of the whole idea of passing a test, and of having rules for grammar and a basic code for the way in which words work to create meaning.
Once again, I’m not for one minute suggesting that universities shouldn’t offer bridging courses to help students who need extra assistance. But I’m wondering if anybody feels the same as me – that if we continue to set low standards, we run the risk of eroding the wonderful gift that is communication, the wonderful gift that is storytelling, and the capacity we have to make markings on a piece of paper that can move others to tears and to laughter.
I’ve always felt that if parents showed their children that reading and writing were valuable, then the children would grow up with the same belief in their value. But if the systems these children aspire to enter when they are grown do not value reading and writing, then how can the children hold onto that belief? What do you think? Am I yearning for the long-lost era of English competency that has somehow ceased to hold any charm? Or am I right in thinking that good English can and should be central to our children’s lives? (And God help me if there are any spelling mistakes or grammatical errors in this blog!)