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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 12:57 GMT
Are Scottish students lagging behind?
The standard of grammar and general knowledge in schools in Scotland has fallen, according to Professor Joe Farrell of Strathclyde University.

He says schools expect too little of students, with the result that they are lagging behind their European peers.

Professor Farrell claims that anything which requires hard work has been eliminated from the Scottish educational system.

And he says first year language courses at the university now amount to no more than "remedial" education.

Have standards of general knowledge and grammar fallen in schools in Scotland? What can be done?

This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.


My experience of the Scottish education system is that it is (or was?) far more flexible than its English/Welsh counterpart. By allowing students to gradually narrow their specialisation, they are not forced to jump from numerous GCSE subjects to just three A-level subjects. I was able to study Maths, Art, History, English and three languages to Higher Level. My results meant I was already guaranteed an unconditional place at university when I entered my final year at school, which took off a lot of pressure and meant that I could spend time on CSYS exams, which placed emphasis on unassisted learning and research work, dissertation writing, and so on.

When I arrived at University I felt much more prepared than many of my English classmates. But I was fortunate to be educated at a school that encouraged a more modular approach. Many other Scottish children are forced to stick to fewer exam subjects (4 or 5) and not encouraged to make the most of the flexible system.
Hannah, Scotland


There are political and economic factors to take into account

Anon, Scotland
I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Farrell. As a college lecturer I am constantly being faced with students whose basic spelling, grammar and numeric are simply appalling. It would be far too simplistic however to point an accusing finger solely at the education system. There are political and economic factors to take into account. The proportion of the population entering Further and Higher education has increased dramatically over the past two decades fuelled by government funding formulas which reward establishments with high intakes and punish those who are more selective. No surprise then that entrance requirements are dropped yet pass rates steadily increase.

This is no accident. As Scotland has become increasingly de-industrialised the unemployment figures have been massaged by pressurising education establishments to increase their numbers with people who under different economic conditions would either be disinclined or not suitably qualified to enter them. This is not to pour cold water on widening access to education, however to sacrifice quality in order to achieve this goal will benefit no one.
Anon, Scotland

I find this abuse of the Scottish system not only wrong but quite simply degrading to those of us who are currently attending university. I am studying law and am now in my third year. I have not failed an exam yet but this has been no easy task. To say that these are dumbed down standards scares me immensely. Are you telling me that the complexities and theories I have had to muddle through and find some understanding in are easy? No - I believe that instead of constantly moaning about the state of every institution in Scotland perhaps the people should appreciate what we do have.

I have found the teaching system to be of a high quality - though I do only have experience of my high school and university. I think that those grumbling about the lack of grammar and European news in the papers should take a trip to the USA and discover what bad grammar and coverage really is!
Lyndsey Barr, Scotland

I have worked in Belgium for a large USA corporation and am currently working in Italy at a research centre, in both locations I have had to learn the language to survive. The classes are always with other European nationals, it is patently clear that the people from the UK are miles behind because we do not understand the core grammar structures, we might know verbs, nouns, pronouns and adjectives but we do not understand past and future tenses, declensions, subjunctives etc. The other nationals do understand this, for the UK, Ireland and USA national it is like having to learn a secret code before we can begin to understand and use the language. We are so far behind and illiterate in this field. Made this is why the UK is so anti - Europe, arrogant and hostile, it is embarrassment at our inadequacies.
Robin Urry, Italy

Being a recent graduate of one of the traditional Scottish university. I have to agree with Professor Farrell up to a point, I freely admit that my grammar is of a low standing, it was something that simply was not taught in my Scottish state high school. However it has not stopped me getting a good job and it is something that I do work on. I have to disagree with the general opinion expressed here. Like Graeme, I too was brought up in Scotland and now live in Switzerland. There are good and bad students everywhere and I've certainly met my fair share of stupid ones over here. As always, it depends on the application of the individual student.
Steve, Switzerland

I think one of the major reasons for the lower educational standard of students has been the slow and gradual creeping in of the philosophy that every pupil should feel "good" about themselves and not be subjected to the possibility of failure leaving those who would fail academically as tantamount to receiving some sort of psychological damage. I would argue that the opposite is true: hard work, discipline and a broad subject matter that the old "O' grade and Higher systems offered will offer a sense of achievement to those who attain that level. But we have to face facts - not everyone will be academically bright. Therefore an additional path has to be created.
Martin, USA


I teach in a UK university and I have to say that the overall level of ignorance in students is astounding

Jennie Powell, UK
I don't think the problem is just in Scotland. I teach in a UK university and I have to say that the overall level of ignorance in students is astounding. Most find it difficult to actually think for themselves and have to be shown step by step what they have to do and what they have to learn. I taught an undergraduate maths class for first year economics students last year, and had to rewrite my lecture notes completely to account for the poor skills of the students. Some had problems converting into decimals, and a couple even had trouble with percentages! All of these students had, allegedly, an A-level in maths. On the other hand, students from Germany, Finland and Sweden had very good basic skills and were very self-motivated.
Jennie Powell, UK

Although I am loathe to agree with Professor Farrell in criticising our education system we have to face facts. It has been dumbed-down in recent years, but it has a lot to do with the emphasis on a standard curriculum. Children learn what they officially have to learn, and that's it, there is little room for independent thought. As a student at a supposedly academic university I often find that I am constrained in terms of how original I can be because of a formulaic education which I feel caters often to the lowest common denominator in the quest to make up the numbers.
Andrew Murray, Scotland

The Scottish Education System has never really had any 'standards' so for them to fall is an incredibly poor show. I moved from there when I was 11 years old to Essex and it did me the world of good.
Mark Blackburn, London, UK


A lift in the economy should see a solution to all of this

Chris Gower, London, England
They have fallen dramatically. I have relatives in Scotland that have been affected severely by this and there is only one thing I can put it down to. Unemployment is on the rise in Scotland and it is proving a massive burden on the children of Scotland. They are simply losing interest because the people they look up to are in a sad state of affairs. A lift in the economy should see a solution to all of this.
Chris Gower, London, England

Professor Farrell is absolutely correct. The standard of written and spoken grammar among many young adults whom I have encountered makes me suspect that they stopped paying attention to lessons in primary, never mind secondary, school.
Barry Lees, Scotland

Not that long ago I saw figures bandied around that suggested that Scotland had the highest proportion in Europe of school leavers going on to attain University places. Now we have a rather vague assertion from one individual which would seem to fly in the face of that. Just what barometer is Professor Farrell using here to measure the standards of general knowledge amongst our European counterparts, or is this as I strongly suspect, just an unjustified rant by a disillusioned and incapable lecturer?
Shaun, Teignmouth UK

That's what happens when you make polys Universities.
Gerry, Scotland


Children learn what they officially have to learn, and that's it

Andrew Murray, Scotland
Although I am loathe to agree with Professor Farrell in criticising our education system we have to face facts. It has been dumbed-down in recent years, but it has a lot to do with the emphasis on a standard curriculum. Children learn what they officially have to learn, and that's it, there is little room for independent thought. As a student at a supposedly academic university I often find that I am constrained in terms of how original I can be because of a formulaic education which I feel caters often to the lowest common denominator in the quest to make up the numbers.
Andrew Murray, Scotland

When I was an Open University undergraduate (best uni in the universe) I remember receiving a booklet titled 'Plain English'. It took the terror and snobbery out of grammar. I recommend it to young and old.
Mac, Scotland

The point here is not a "poly" versus "ancient" university one. As a student currently at a new university, but with experience of the "ancients", I have to agree with Professor Farrell that grammar and general knowledge are not held in as high a regard as they used to be. Have a look at the 'dumbing down' of the media to see part of the answer to the problem.
William, Scotland

A direct result of league tables, if you are measured by how many bodies can pass an exam you will firstly, attempt to lower that standard and secondly, narrow the focus of that education to pass the exam. This of course has nothing to do with education, but when did bean counters know anything about education.
Gerry, Scotland


I believe we need to get back to 'Chalk and Talk' for certain subjects

Calum, Canada
I believe the problem started back in the late 80s as more and more emphasis was put on course work and modular learning. We were told that final exams were too much pressure for students, but they must perform under pressure in the real world. I heard horror stories of people who would sit the same module exam two or three times till they passed and I mean the exact same paper!

I have interviewed people for jobs in high-technology, and was astounded by some who had just qualified. Their lack of knowledge and the fact that it did not bother them was incredulous. I believe we need to get back to 'Chalk and Talk' for certain subjects and put student under more pressure to learn and understand, not just memorise.
Calum, Canada

Having lived and done all my studying in Scotland, I can totally agree with what Joe Farrell is saying. Now that I live in Switzerland I can easily see the gulf in the standard of education and knowledge. I am learning languages myself now, and people are astounded when I have no idea what "infinitive", "subjunctive" and "participle" mean.
Graeme, Switzerland

If it is true that people are more ignorant, then it isn't surprising really. The media in the UK is completely oblivious to anything that goes on in Europe and the Rest of the World. We must demonstrate a greater international awareness in the media for the younger generations to take notice of foreign affairs. Then they might be inclined to think about learning other languages and improving the use of their own language. Younger generations need to be influenced by a less ignorant media.
Michael, Scotland

I agree with his comments but think that it applies to the whole of the United Kingdom not just Scotland. However, seeing the number of idiots with degrees coming into the workplace, it looks as if the university system is not working either.
Alan, Scotland

See also:

17 Jan 02 | Scotland
Lecturer says students 'know less'
14 Jan 02 | Scotland
Mixed report card for schools
26 Oct 01 | Scotland
Cash boost for 'poorer' schools
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