As the latest war of words between the Howard Government and the Education Union erupts, there is a grave danger that today’s juvenile name calling and tactics by federal Education Minister Julie Bishop and president of the Australian Education Union’s Victorian branch Mary Bluett will distract from one simple fact.

We are now close to producing a third generation of Australians who struggle to spell or punctuate correctly.

Bishop is foolish to stoop to Cold War tactics with her Mao name calling. All she has to do to win the debate is quote the nation’s employers, many of whom are appalled at the standard of writing and spelling. How many regularly receive badly spelled job applications? Or have to check and rework correspondence sent on their behalf? Or groan every time a sales document is printed with not an apostrophe to be seen?

Bluett is also pursuing the wrong line. This is not an attack on teachers, many of whom are passionately committed to the education of children. Instead she needs to admit a cultural experiment has not worked and work together with government to set a new direction.

But the problem does not just lie with teachers and unions. At the local primary school, I sat through a school council meeting as a few well-educated parents argued that spelling is no longer important. Email, text and emerging mobile phone communications have changed our culture, they argued. Bad spelling and shortened words are here to stay. (Besides, who wants to get home after a frantic day at work to quiz a grizzly child on their ten words for the day while cooking the steak?)

Recently I hired an administration assistant. After trawling through about 40 applications littered with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, I was so excited when I received a beautifully written application that he was immediately called in for an interview and started soon after.

Curious, I asked him this morning where he learnt to spell. “Well, I can recognise when a word is wrong and correct it,” he said, a product of one of Melbourne’s elite private schools. “But I can’t spell.”

Peter Fray

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