What was the last thing you wrote by hand? If you’re anything like me, it was probably a shopping list, a cheque, or a brief reminder on a sticky note. Perhaps a birthday card. When required to produce anything longer, we almost invariably turn to the computer.

Indeed, for most adults, a request to write a report, an article or a letter in longhand would cause annoyance and bemusement. “Why?” we would ask. “It’s so much faster and easier to write electronically. I can edit and improve things as I go without starting from scratch. I can send a copy of the work to a colleague the other side of the world in seconds. The environmental impact of paper production is vast.” And so on.

Some adults who haven’t learned to type efficiently may still find it quicker to write by hand – I am a fast typist, so I don’t. My twelve year old daughter taps away nearly as quickly as I do, because she has grown up with computers and tablets. She certainly types far quicker than she can write with a pen.

Hard and fast

My children attend a forward thinking secondary school, where every student has exclusive access to their own iPad. They are also allowed to use a computer for homework, and they submit their work by email – developing skills that they will continue to use in adult life. And yet, as soon as they reach the end of year eleven, all the technological skills and advantages they have become accustomed to are thrown out of the window and they are forced to spend up to three hours for every subject, writing their GCSE papers in longhand. Why?

If you haven’t recently tried writing the old fashioned way for three hours, I can assure you that it is just as unpleasant, inconvenient and arduous as it was when we had to do it for our own exams back in the twentieth century. In fact, those of us ancient enough to have grown up in the days before computers were widespread in classrooms at least had the benefit of having practised writing essays by hand for years, so we were used to the ordeal. I suspect that today’s fifteen year olds, when asked to abandon their devices and write several pages by hand, must feel the same way as we would if someone took our washing machines away and replaced them with a dolly tub and a mangle.

False logic

Schools are continually under pressure to raise standards. Surely the extra burden of writing exams by hand is counterproductive to this? We wouldn’t expect Sir Bradley Wiggins to give his peak performance on a penny farthing. How can we expect our students to produce their best work when they are hampered by a slow and physically demanding medium?

No doubt there are traditionalists who would bemoan the demise of the traditional craft of handwriting, but then the same was probably true when copperplate script or clay tablets fell out of favour. Of course, I would not advocate that children should not learn to write by hand at all – even if for no other reason than the fact that learning to write is an important part of learning to read – but I would also urge that handwriting be used appropriately, when it is the most suitable method of writing for the purpose.

Think first

Another argument that has been used to support the use of handwriting rather than computers in exams is that handwriting tends to encourage students to plan their answer as a whole before writing, whereas typists are more likely to launch straight in and then edit later. There is no conclusive evidence that either method reliably elicits better answers, however – and if it were shown that planning first produced superior results, then why not teach that as part of general exam technique?

Spend to save

Unfortunately, technological solutions always come at a financial cost, and it is obvious that most schools are not in a position to buy new laptops for all their year eleven students immediately, so this should be a medium term goal rather than a sudden change. Looking at the system as a whole and in the long run, though, the cost of new technology would be offset to a large extent by the savings gained by removing the need to print and transport hundreds of thousands of exam papers every year. Perhaps one day the exam boards will find that it is cheaper for them to subsidise the necessary technology than it is to deal with the vast quantities of paper involved in traditional exams.

It’s something to consider, at least. But now, alas, gentle reader, my candle grows dim and I must put down my goose feather quill and seal the scroll with wax in time to catch the last carrier pigeon of the day; so I bid you farewell.

About the author

Guy Snape is a music teacher, writer and photographer. He lives in Cambridge with his wife, two children and their cat