I’ve always been one for championing the importance of learning decent written English skills at an early age. I was given a firm grasp of grammatical rules at primary school. I didn’t confuse “your” with “you’re”, or “their” with “they’re” (or indeed “there”) because the right answers were drummed into me repeatedly. So for me, the idea of getting “its” confused with “it’s” is as strange as trying to play the violin with a flamingo.
If that all sounds a bit stuffy, then answer this: do you know which way is up and which is down? Of course you do. You’d never mix the two up. Why? Well, maybe because of how often the various directions were reinforced to you in your early years and beyond, by simple repetition. Someone points to the sky, you automatically think “up”. Application of the rules on apostrophes is like that for me – I was taught them so often that they became second nature.
But why is it important to have a good standard of written English if you have no desire to write anything at all after you leave school? The reason is simple: job applications.
If there’s one area where the lowering general standards of written English among school leavers is becoming ever clearer, it’s in the quality of CVs. Today I read a number of job applications for two very different roles. The first was an admin position for a charity, the second was to join a scaffolding company. What united them was the fact that a large number of applicants for both had a standard of written English that, back in the day, would have been a “fix the mistakes” comprehension test. Not just typos, but a complete lack of basic punctuation, some horrible misspellings of easy words, and serious problems with sentence structure.
It seems that plenty of people don’t appreciate the importance of a first impression. A job application has to convey certain information about employment history and the like, but it also – rightly or wrongly – gives an insight into how much care the person has taken. Although I hate spell checkers (they can easily replace a misspelled word with a totally wrong word), they do at least ensure that dramatic errors are flagged up.
Here’s the rub: no matter how good you may actually be at a job, a badly written CV is an instant all-expenses paid trip to rejection city, so that you never get to do it. You can only call a certain number of people for interview, so you’ll naturally gravitate towards the ones who present themselves well in the first instance. With the admin role, a basic standard of English was obviously important, but even with the scaffolding job, where written English wouldn’t be required at all, a mess of a CV still left a bad impression. It’s like they just didn’t give a shit when they wrote it. That may be unfair – perhaps it’s a legacy of bad teaching that isn’t their fault – but it’s the way it is.
I don’t think that schools are putting enough time into making sure that pupils leave school with good English skills. Spelling mistakes used to be flagged up in red pen and lost you marks. Now the red pen has been replaced with “less aggressive” green in many schools, and mistakes don’t mark you down at all. A basic standard of literacy is seen as enough to get on in life. Well, it isn’t. With competition for jobs at an all-time high, millions of school leavers may soon realise this the hard way.