Potty training for the workplace?

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My thoughts turned to potty training this week as I attempt to encourage my two-year-old daughter to ditch the nappies. Can’t honestly say I’ll miss swilling out a putrid bucket of washable nappies, however eco-friendly they may be.

Actually, potty training is proving to be even more onerous than I remember from the last couple of times – so I really do pity the increasing number of reception teachers who are being faced with four-year-olds who are still in nappies when they start school because their witless parents have not bothered to train them.  I can’t imagine what sort of disruption this is causing to classes that are already hampered by grunting children who have not yet mastered language from their electronic babysitters.

I see something of a parallel emerging in the workplace.  I can’t be the only fastidious employer out there who is regularly shocked by plummeting standards of literacy amongst twenty-somethings.  What this means is that otherwise competent, bright and hardworking individuals are having to be taught basic grammar and punctuation on company time when they should be getting on with their job. Potty training for grown-ups.

I’m increasingly seeing candidates who have breezed through an English language A-level course (often achieving an A or A*) followed by a degree in English, journalism or PR (inevitably a 2:1 since most universities seem to have all but jettisoned the 2.2). All well and good, you might think on paper. Yet, as soon as I give them a copy test, it becomes glaringly apparent that not a single teacher or lecturer in all those years has picked them up on serious, serial grammatical errors. I’m talking basic English here – like how to spell ‘its place’ or ‘the country’s language’.  How on earth is this possible in a nation as advanced as the UK???

At Peppermint – where every bit of copy is double-checked for accuracy before it leaves the office – we’ve gone as far as introducing a self-regulating system where employees ‘fine’ themselves 20p for every misplaced apostrophe, with the money going to a local hospice.

This may seem draconian…but I’ve seen the alternative.  Candidates from other agencies pitch up for interview with samples of their ‘best’ work.  More often than not, these are press releases riddled with toe-curling mistakes that I then proceed to circulate round my own team with the words ‘DON’T EVER DO THIS’ scrawled across the top. And to think that client companies are being charged for the privilege of having someone write pidgin English on their behalf.

But it’s not just in the world of PR that standards are sliding. I’m clocking misspellings and misuse of apostrophes in regional papers’ editorials with depressing regularity (I saw one last week that had failed to spell Friday correctly on its masthead) – and, very disappointingly, the odd one creeping into our most respected broadsheets.

I’d always scrutinised A-Level results as a reliable barometer of a potential employee’s abilities – but these days an A grade English language A-Level is no guarantee of even a nodding acquaintance with basic grammar. And that’s a real bummer for the poor candidate who’s worked really hard, is proud of their achievements, but has been let down dismally by their tutors.  I can only conclude that a large chunk of the UK education system has simply thrown in the towel when it comes to correct writing, so it’s left to the eventual employer to clean up the mess.

The British are firmly on course for becoming a universal laughing stock for not being able to communicate correctly or cogently in their own language.  My 20-year-old Slovakian au pair writes word-perfect English (with impeccable use of apostrophes) and reads the Guardian and Economist religiously.  Contrast that with many of our home-grown graduates who don’t read past Heat.  Meanwhile, it’s been uncovered that certain British universities are ‘allowing themselves’ the discretion to award more first class degrees to up their rankings. When I got one of those back in the early 90s, I bloody well earned it.

So what do we do? For a start, I’m all for reintroducing good old-fashioned dictation throughout primary and secondary education. I’d also welcome a frank debate with teachers and university lecturers of subjects such as English so they can hear first-hand what problems their legacy is causing for industry.  Finally, I’d champion the resurrection of the F-word that dare not speak its name: FAIL.