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British undergraduates can't write English

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  • Published 12.03.06

London, March 12: British undergraduates are incapable of composing even the most basic English sentences, according to a damning new report.

The Royal Literary Fund study, due to be published later this month, describes the writing skills of young people starting university as a public catastrophe.

Based on evidence from more than 130 professional writers working in 71 universities under a scheme launched in 1999, it exposes “shocking” inadequacies in all types of institutions and all academic departments. Even students who have won places at elite universities to study English literature “lack the basic ability to express themselves in writing”.

The report, seen by The Daily Telegraph, will be regarded as further evidence of the government’s failure to raise standards and an indictment of the examination system.

Despite the annual rise in results, in which the A-level pass rate has increased to more than 96 per cent and A grades to 25 per cent, the Royal Literary Fund writers were “astonished at the scale of the problem”.

Hilary Spurling, the winner of this year’s Whitbread Prize for her biography of Henri Matisse and chairman of the fund’s fellowship subcommittee, said: “This is a nationwide survey built up from individual accounts that reads like dispatches from a front line where students struggle to survive without basic training.

“The recurrent theme is the confusion, embarrassment and fear endured by students who find themselves confronted with written assignments they don’t understand and can’t begin to tackle. The writers’ scheme has exposed a public catastrophe.”

A depressing catalogue of shortcomings is exposed in the 92-page report, which contends that writing skills have been devalued in the “tick box” approach of contemporary secondary education.

“Many students have difficulty not just in structuring a sentence, but in structuring paragraphs or essays as a whole,” the report says.

“They seem to have had very little experience of writing. In con- sequence, their essays are often incoherent not only at the level of the sentence but also in their overall argument. Absent, in many cases, is any sense of confident fluency, of knowing how to mount an argument, how to articulate it with clarity and consistency and how to see it through to a decent conclusion.”

Contributors to the report blame primary and secondary schools that “spoon-feed” pupils and reward them for “displaying bits of knowledge”. Social and cultural changes are at the heart of the problem, say the authors. Pupils have been encouraged to use the Internet and to communicate electronically, leaving them unable to “find their way around a book”.

Yet universities still demand written assignments and the analysis of text.

However, the writers found that students who were given the right guidance improved rapidly. Undergraduates had the intellectual capacity to write well but had been let down by their schools’ neglect of good writing.

The report calls for teachers to emphasise grammar, essay writing and English-language skills and recommends that all universities should have writing development centres.

David Willetts, the shadow education minister, said: “This is a hard-hitting report from people who know what they are talking about and who have no axe to grind. It undermines the government’s claims that things are getting better and ministers need to... look at how the curriculum can be improved.”