It was reported in The Herald recently that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) are considering stopping handwritten exams in secondary schools over the next decade. SQA chief executive, Dr Janet Brown, was quoted as saying that some subjects will ‘always need’ paper exams but electronic examinations would simply reflect societal change. The teaching union, the EIS, said handwriting is still important while the Scottish Parent Teacher Council said much the same. The article, which appeared on the front page of The Herald on 8th December 2017, mentioned a SQA report from 2014, where many Higher English exam scripts were ‘near-illegible’. Making people write at speed for three hours at a time tends to do that, leaving aside anything else. For OU courses, I write exam scripts in block capitals, to give the examiners a chance.
I don’t like exams anyway, either doing them or as a part of the education system, but I think this would be progress. The fact is that very few people handwrite anything any more. Typing is faster for many people, either on a screen or a keyboard. Our thoughts go at typing speed rather than writing speed now. A comment that the Scottish Parent Teacher Council made in the article was interesting, though, about how touch typing used to be taught and ‘would be invaluable to many’. I have to differ with that. When I was at high school, I was taught touch typing and I couldn’t do it. I had to leave the class as I was getting so frustrated. To this day, I still can’t do it. I am not well-coordinated and even though I can type very fast with multiple fingers and without looking at the screen, it is hardly the way that Mavis Beacon intended me to type.
While I am typing this post, I am referring to handwritten notes I made. I write a lot and it tends to be split between stories and notes on paper and articles, essays and blog posts on my computer. With some pieces, I handwrite the first draft then type it and redraft from there, variously scribbling on a printed copy and then working from there. My handwriting isn’t brilliant. It can be spidery and illegible to some but that’s not always a bad thing. I sometimes refer to it as encryption. It remains remarkably consistent wherever I write, from buses to trains to actually sitting at a table. I’ve spent years writing leaning on a clipboard or a folder so it’s fine.
I think handwriting is actually important. It is a skill thousands of years of evolution in the making and we shouldn’t simply dismiss it in favour of technology. Even though exams are fundamentally pointless, we have to stick with them and making people write their answers out at speed by hand seems unnecessarily cruel and excessive. For exams, technology is the answer. For a lot of things, though, for creative writing, even just for the pleasure of it, by hand will still be best.