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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 August 2007, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
Are school standards slipping?
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News education reporter

Students sitting exams
Students are judged mainly on academic ability
As predictable as records being broken for A-level grades this year is the debate about whether standards are slipping because exams are being made easier.

But another issue that academics love to discuss is whether standards are falling in grammar, punctuation and spelling.

Are the students of today up to scratch when it comes to the basics?

Shakespeare spelt his name differently on several occasions during the course of his life.

If the great Bard himself had problems with spelling, what hope is there for the rest of us? Certainly room for improvement, as evidence suggests.

A study of 16-24-year-olds' spelling competency by the Basic Skills Agency found that half had difficulty with words such as "receive" and "apologise".

More than two-fifths were defeated by "sincerely" and one in seven could not manage "writing".

Albert Einstein
Einstein may have been dyslexic

"Accommodation" proved to be the most difficult word in the survey, with 68% spelling it incorrectly.

Other stumbling blocks were "occasionally", "immediately", "necessary" and "maintenance".

Hands up all of you who would need to consult the dictionary or "spell-check" to make sure you had got these right?

This survey was carried out in 1996, but observations from the 1950s reveal equally disturbing trends.

George Turnbull, who is known as the exams doctor at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said: "Generations of youngsters have gone through school without having any spelling, grammar or punctuation instilled in the way they did at one time."

We are often reminded by parents or grandparents that standards were higher in their day - with an emphasis on grammar and punctuation and the rigours of weekly spelling tests.

But many fell at the same hurdles as today's students, it seems.

An O-level (as GCSE's were known in those days) examiner's report in 1952 found: "There was... much inferior work arising, it would seem, not only from incompetence but from an absence of respect for written language.

"Colloquialisms, on occasion, enliven narrative but their frequent use and crude forms, noted by all examiners, reflect poor quality of mind and of taste.

"The abuse of punctuation suggests that most candidates are ignorant of its function in determining structure and meaning, or are not impressed by its importance."

'Perfection' is unrealistic

Go back another generation to 1931 and an examiner's Junior County Scholarship Examination report declared that pupils' answers "displayed no knowledge of the subject-matter of the question; and that there was evidence that the candidates were quite unable to write a few words without gross errors of spelling, grammar and composition."

In 1864, a large majority of examination candidates were said to be "ignorant of the first principles of punctuation," according to the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations report on school examinations.

"They either insert wrong stops, or none whatever," it continues.

In 1858, the examination report said: "It was evident that the principles of grammar, as exhibited in the English language, are not made a matter of systematic study in our schools."
George Turnbull
Shakespeare could survive without spelling well
George Turnbull, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
Some of the world's most successful people have not always performed with distinction in areas you might imagine.

Shakespeare has already been mentioned, but war-time prime minister Winston Churchill had a less than enviable school report and the physicist Albert Einstein excelled in mathematics and physics in his university entrance exam, but failed at French, chemistry, and biology. Some even believe he was dyslexic.

Perhaps we should not judge students so harshly. This is certainly the attitude of the Institute of Educational Assessors (IEA).

IEA chair Kathleen Tattersall said: "Don't expect perfection from our young people.

"We never had it in the past and we are unlikely to get it in the future.

Words commonly mis-spelt

"But do expect them to work relentlessly throughout their school career for the success that they achieve."

George Turnbull believes that we should all play to our strengths. He said: "That's what young people are doing and they should be congratulated. They are working extremely hard.

"Shakespeare could survive without spelling well - although he did have a lot of other things going for him."

Perhaps that is something to aspire to.

"We tend to judge everyone by academic ability," said Mr Turnbull.

But some people, including the David Beckhams and Sir Richard Bransons of this world, have proved there are other routes to success.

Bad spelling 'puts off employers'
04 Aug 06 |  Education
Dictionary helps student grammar
04 Aug 06 |  Education
Top GCSE pupils 'unable to spell'
18 Jul 06 |  Education

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