A proper grasp of the Dutch and English languages as well as arithmetic is essential for educated people to be able to fully participate in our society. For example, on the job market as well as during higher education, you’ll be judged on the outward presentation of what you deliver. To many of the pupils at the senior general and pre-university levels, that means: writing, reading, and writing some more. A job application or essay littered with language errors is not a pleasant read. In general social conduct, misspellings and wrongly used words can lead to a message not being understood properly. 

Fortunately, in 2008, outgoing secretary of state Van Bijsterveldt presented a plan to no longer allow graduation with two failed classes in the subjects of Dutch, English and/or math on the national final exams for senior general and pre-university pupils. A wise choice: pupils have the right to learn to read, write and calculate well before they’re sent off into the world with their diploma. But last week, the National Action Committee for Pupils (Landelijk Aktie Komitee Scholieren, or LAKS) vehemently opposed the plans with a petition. The LAKS says more investments in education should be made first, which completely misses the point of the debate. Of course we need to continue to invest in our educational system. But that doesn’t help us today and isn’t relevant to the question of what standards we should hold pupils to now.

In higher education, there are many complaints about the decline in competence – particularly when it comes to language skills – of students who have attained diplomas in the secondary education system. When I started teaching myself at the University of Amsterdam, I witnessed this first-hand: for many of the students, I had to spend much of my time on correcting linguistic errors and explaining complex texts, at the expense of the content of the subject I was teaching.

In business too, language is a struggle. Not only is much attention being spent on raising the language skills of new employees to the appropriate level, but it’s also becoming more common for employees to be sent to language courses in order to actually learn how to communicate in ‘simpler’ ways. After all, a company needs to take into account the growing number of customers that prefer to – and sometimes need to – be addressed with simplistic language. I mean: ‘simple’ language.

Of course, companies don’t solve the problem with pupils’ deteriorating language skills. Some people resign to it (“language use is changing / has changed”) and others point the finger at ‘the source’: the students at teacher training. After all, they’re the ones (badly) teaching our children to read, write and calculate.

I have major issues with that approach. Of course we should help teacher training students and challenge them to work on their language skills. But shouldn’t we be doing that for all students and pupils? The “two failed classes is fine too” attitude of the LAKS implies an unfathomable message: you can fail two of the most important subjects on your diploma! Two failed classes is really not good enough to get pupils to be all they can be. Van Bijsterveldt’s proposal is a stimulating, challenging idea for pupils, who will hopefully try harder in the future.