Sunday, 17 July 2011

Poor spelling could cost the UK millions in lost online revenue.

According to Charles Duncombe, an internet entrepreneur and owner of the Just Say Please Group poor spelling and grammar could cost British companies millions of pounds in lost internet sales. Not exactly small potatoes, however you spell it, in a market where according to the Office for National Statistics sales to the value of £527 million taking place every week.

Speaking to the BBC this week Mr Duncombe said that he was ‘shocked by the poor quality of written English’ he encountered in applications when seeking to recruit new staff, many of which were peppered with spelling and grammar errors and even the use of text speak. Even university graduates, in his experience, were all at sea (or see as they might have put it) without a computer spellchecker to fall back on.

A single spelling mistake on a website could, he estimated, cut sales by half and caused and ‘if you project this across the whole of internet retail, then millions of pounds worth of business is probably being lost each week due to simple spelling mistakes.’

Charles Duncombe’s concerns are shared by Professor William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute, he told the BBC that whilst some areas of the web, social networking sites for example, have a tolerant attitude towards spelling and grammar in other areas ‘such as a home page or commercial offering that are not amongst friends’ poor spelling could ‘raise concerns over trust and credibility.’ He added that in these circumstances where consumers might be wary of SPAM or phishing efforts, ‘a misspelt word could be a killer issue.’

James Fothergill of the Confederation of British Industry, also speaking to the BBC, expressed concern saying that the government ‘must make the improvement of the basic literacy skills of school and college leavers a top priority.’

At this point I could come over all funky and say that being concerned about declining standards of spelling and grammar is so last century; but I won’t because it is probably one of the most important issues facing the country. Partly for the splendid economic reason that, as Charles Duncombe pointed out trading online means that ‘cutting edge companies depend upon old fashioned skills,’ namely being able to express information accurately and in a easily readable form. Unless you’re under twenty five text speak does not come within a mile of doing so.

There is also the small matter of literacy being the key to lifting people up from the bottom rung of society, without it all other learning is impossible and however great it may be an individual’s potential will inevitably crumble into dust. Since politicians of all parties claim to be committed to giving the poor a hand up rather than a handout you’d think improving literacy would be at the top of the political agenda; but it isn’t.

Instead what seems to be the major concern of the political classes is endless fiddling with the curriculum, a testing regime that seems designed to produce statistics rather than test knowledge and picking fights with the teaching unions at every opportunity.

Add to this the expensive and unwanted imposition of academies when what most people want is decent community schools that educate their children in the skills they will need to make their way in the world and what you have is a disaster waiting to happen. As for the ‘Free Schools’ project favoured by ambitious Schools Minister Michael Gove along with lessons in Latin, and for all I know compulsory Quiddich, don’t even get me started.

This has been a good week for Labour leader Ed Milliband, he might not be ahead in the opinion polls but he has given a sufficiently assured performance over the phone hacking scandal to silence his critics within the party for now. If, however, he wants to turn a good week into a fighting chance at the next election then he needs to find an issue that will connect with the concerns of Middle England, education might just be that issue.

To do it though he will have to do two things that scare modern politicians witless, admit to being wrong and speak up for a policy because he believes in it not because a focus group told him it might resonate with whatever group of voters he’s triangulating on this week.

The admission is a simple one; he must admit that Labour got it wrong on education. Wrong on endorsing the trendy ‘child centred’ teaching methods of the seventies that removed discipline and rigour from education; and wrong that they compounded this in more recent times by endorsing the misguided and expensive academies project that conspires to bring back the divisiveness of the old grammar schools disguised by a shiny new atrium.

The policy he must speak up for is a little more complex and, at first will draw howls of mockery and displeasure from the tabloid press; he must speak up for comprehensive education. Not the failed experiment of the past, but the sound idea that underpins it, schools with strong discipline and rigorous standards that are open to all and that treat vocational and academic learning with equal respect.

In the short term that won’t be popular, in fact it will expose him and his party to ridicule as out of touch lefties, but politics, like golf, is all about being able to play the long game as well as the short one. The ‘Free Schools’ experiment will fail and many of the establishments set up by well meaning parents will be gobbled up by huge companies with more interest in benefiting their shareholders than their students. When that happens an education system that is run for the benefit of all not just those with sharp elbows or deep pockets will suddenly look very attractive, so too would whatever party had the guts to speak up for it when everyone else thought they were mad.

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