Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Monday 25 August 2014

More on the English Language and how we use it

So, the GCSE results are in. For those of you who are not familiar with the British exam system in schools, these are the exams that our kids take at sixteen. They are divided into subjects and are graded A* to F, where A* is the highest grade, followed by A, B C, down to F, which is a Fail. All kids are expected to get A to C in five subjects.

The brightest kids will sweep the board with 10 plus A* GCSE passes.

For thirty years the GCSE results have been improving with more and more kids getting increasingly good grades.

There is a good deal of competition between schools to secure the best students entering year 7 at age eleven, so a school’s GCSE results are important. The schools’ league table matters, because any school’s position on it determines what sort of incoming student body it will attract and therefore the ongoing reputation of the school.

With every government, and with every Education Secretary there seems to be some shake-up in the system.

Michael Gove's wiki page
The latest shake-up was engineered by the infamous Michael Gove. I wrote about him in this blog a few months ago. I can’t help thinking that how we educate our population should be decided by specialists in that field rather than government ministers.

No system is perfect, and, like it or not, I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to education. I think our kids always deserve a better education... all of them, all of the time. I think the base level of education should be higher, and that the brightest and best should be stretched further.

I wrote this blog a while ago, by way of an open letter to one Gemma Worrall. It was intended to be humorous as well as a scathing indictment of our education system. I took a huge amount of flak for that blog. My detractors thought that I was being unkind to Gemma. My purpose was to point out that, like so many of her generation, she had been very badly let down by a school that had fallen short in teaching her anything much of value. I didn’t think she was stupid, I only thought that she had been made to look stupid on Twitter, because she’d said something silly and unguarded. If she’d had a better education she might have been saved the embarrassment.

The government was my target, and she was the catalyst only because I see this sort of thing all the time.

Anyway, back to my point.

The GCSE results are in, and, after thirty years there has finally been a fall in the GCSE results for English. The overall drop is about 2%. It doesn’t sound like a huge amount. However, some schools have seen a fall in there results of 20%, and that’s a catastrophe.

English Language is a core subject. It is taught in every school to every student up to the age of sixteen. GCSE English is an exam that is sat by everyone, everywhere. It’s a no-brainer. 

Our language is how we communicate. It’s how we connect. It’s the glue that holds society together. Every piece of information that circulates in our society, that isn’t an image, comes in the form of language.

When I took my GCSE English it was still called an O’level, and I’m not going to tell you what year it was, but a lot of you weren’t even born. More than three decades have passed. I sat three English exams: Eng Lit, Eng Lang and Eng Spoken.

When I was at school we had one computer. I remember its arrival. It was a monster with five inch floppy disks. There were few lessons in computers or computing, and they certainly weren’t offered to everyone. The first office I worked in had no fax machine and no photocopier. The second office I worked in had both of those things, but if we wanted something faxed or photocopied there was a dedicated person to do those things for us. We didn’t touch the machines ourselves. The first publishing office I worked in cut and paste layouts from bromides to be made into film for printing. 

None of this means anything to any of you.

What it means to me is that memos were still written and letters were still sent. I understood the difference between Dear Sir... Yours sincerely and Dear Mr Smith... Yours faithfully. I understood that when I answered a phone I should begin with ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’ to establish the connection before I said the company name, my department and then my own name. All phones were landlines.

I still say hello. I still make introductions. I still shake hands and kiss cheeks. It doesn’t have to be formal, but there are ways to make interaction easy and comfortable.

I’m rambling today. It’s Bank Holiday Monday, and I’m chilling.

Back to the subject at hand.

The spoken element of the English GCSE was folded into the English Language exam as a reading and speaking element, some time in the last thirty-odd years and has been there ever since. In a society where spoken English is used more and more this makes good sense. The e-mail and text seem to me to fit this bracket, as do conference calling, skype and even the YouTube phenomenon. We all communicate more directly than we ever have before...

...Except it isn’t direct, is it? There are a great many filters between people, perhaps more than there have ever been, and a lot of our communication is, somehow, much more anonymous than it has ever been. That’s why I believe that the reading and speaking element of the exam is really more important than it was when I took my O’Levels. 

I regularly see people in all kinds of situations interfacing with the World via their smart devices while in the company of real people that they’re not interacting with at all. I also regularly meet strangers not just in my daily life, but also as part of my job, and, more particularly as part of the husband’s work.

I regularly see people struggle to talk, to introduce themselves, to interact on a basic human level. It isn’t their fault; it’s about changes to society. 

Walking down the street, pedestrians are often unaware of those around them, invading their space or being unconsciously rude. In shops and at service points, people might go through an entire transaction without uttering a single comprehensible word. I got on a bus, recently, and as I got off I thanked the driver. He was, for a moment flabberghasted, then slightly embarrassed, and then delighted. The last time I rode the bus regularly it was common practice to thank the driver.

Small verbal interactions are part of the regular pattern of my life, but perhaps that’s because I initiate them, which is strange for someone who has no smalltalk whatsoever. 

Language is about communication, but it has to begin and end somewhere. Surely, it begins and ends with those small interactions, with speaking to people, with being able to introduce oneself to a stranger, with saying please or thank you, with getting along with others. Communicating by its very definition involves other people. We can all put as much stuff into the World through electronic mass media, (by which, of course, I mean the web) as we like, but if that communication isn’t effective or if no one chooses to see it, if they aren’t touched by it or respond to it, it’s meaningless. 

Too many of us simply assume that if what we’ve put into the World is met with a negative response, the responders are wrong or stupid or have misunderstood, but we’re kidding ourselves. 

I’ll refer you back to my open letter to Gemma Worrall. 

I blog a lot, and on my blog I write a lot about the things I think and feel. Because I have opinions I am always going to have detractors. People are always going to think differently from me. I attract a certain number of commenters who remain anonymous and who ‘troll’. I’m totally OK with that.

My letter to Gemma Worrall came under a lot of scrutiny, and people didn’t like it. They didn’t like me. I was angry and bitter when I wrote that blog and my cynicism cut in. I could have taken a different approach, and I didn’t. I was sarcastic, and the tone was lost on a lot of people. I also directed that sarcasm, addressing Gemma Worrall directly by writing the blog in the form of a letter.

I stand by the contents of the blog and by my intention in writing it, which was to call out the education system. It wasn’t my intention to suggest that Gemma Worrall was stupid or unpleasant or lacked value as a person. I don’t know her, and I’m sure she’s perfectly lovely; she’s certainly beautiful, she earns an honest living and she’s a person who deserves my respect as much as anyone else does. I would absolutely employ her, and I’m sure if I met her I’d find her perfectly charming.

If I made a mistake in writing the blog, it was in the form that I chose to do it. Those who read my blog regularly know that it was an unusual style for me. I allowed my feelings to take over, and I obviously lost clarity and didn’t adequately put my point across. My bad.

In a World where communication and clarity of communication is increasingly important, and in a World where we are all exposed to a greater number of people, mostly strangers, on a regular basis, we all need to be better at communicating. We all need to be better at maintaining our personal space, at guarding what little privacy we have and at respecting one another. I believe we do all of those things with the words that we speak.

This year the GCSE did not include the reading and speaking component. It was ditched. 

I vividly remember my Eng Spoken exam. I had to introduce myself, read from an unseen text, hold a conversation with the examiner and take part in a group discussion. These things were not revised for or practised at my school at that time. I don’t know what form that part of the modern exam took. But I do see the value of it.

As I understand it, the reading and speaking element of the exam was dropped because it was assessed internally by teachers in their own schools. That might reflect the dramatic fall in grades in some schools since that portion of the exam was ditched. I can’t help thinking there’s a simple fix for that. Bringing in external examiners might be problematic, but since all GCSE exams take place on the same day countrywide, surely it wouldn’t be too much of a leap to swap teachers from different schools within districts? Just a thought.

Not everyone finds it easy to speak at all, let alone confidently. Not every child wants to speak in class, but there is an argument for expecting and encouraging every child to speak in class from the moment he steps into one aged five. For those people who lack confidence, who are shy or tentative as small children, those things can be overcome in a safe, nurturing environment. Allow them to continue not to speak from a fear of forcing them and they will never learn that it is not only okay to speak, but that it is desirable and a huge benefit to them. It is also a huge benefit to the gregarious child to teach him when it is better for him to be silent.

For all those people that I meet at signings and events, mostly with the husband, it is absolutely my pleasure to be spoken to. Be shy, be embarrassed, be as gregarious as you are, and say what you like, it is all equally lovely to me. We spend our lives with only each other and the work for company, so coming to meet you is the highlight of our week, month or even year. Keep coming and keep talking and keep making us smile. Tell us your  names, shake our hands and tell us what you think. Who knows, we might have something to say to you, too.


  1. GCSEs are (for now) graded on a scale from A* to G, with all grades within this range deemed 'pass' grades. In addition, a grade U can be awarded to indicate a fail.

    1. Thanks for clarifying. I really should have checked the details. With my kids now well into their twenties, I'm clearly a little out of touch. Sorry.