A recent article praised the supreme achievement of English education, the grammar school, which flourished for a few short decades before it fell in the 1960s to the scythe of egalitarianism and mediocrity. Grammar schools taught far more than grammar, but they rightly placed great emphasis on the study of language as the foundation of all learning. Since their demise, there has been a marked decline in the teaching of grammar that has been associated with a noticeable decline in the standard of spoken, and especially, written English, and brought about a situation in which twelve years old children in non-English-speaking countries like Vietnam know more English grammar than students at school in England.
English Grammar was a subject that every student at grammar school in England took at the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary Level (‘O’ level) examination at the end of their fifth year in secondary school, at the age of 15 or 16. Over five years, the students learned in detail about tenses, parts of speech, spelling and punctuation and went on to clause analysis, précising and essay writing. Many students left grammar school at this stage, while the others entered the sixth form to prepare for university, but all passed out into the world with a thorough grounding in their native language.
Students at grammar school also studied English literature and this was examined at GCE ‘O’ level as a separate subject, but while English Literature was optional, English Grammar was compulsory. Other languages were taught and the most common were Latin and French. When learning a foreign language it is essential to understand its grammar and this is much easier if the grammar of one’s own language is well understood. In a country like Vietnam, with a language that has only four tenses, no irregular verbs and no declining verbs, English grammar can seem extremely complex, but it is mastered systematically.
The English language has been adopted as the international medium of communication. Children in every land are set to learn English as the compulsory second language. The peoples of all those lands in which English is the mother tongue have a responsibility to maintain standards so that it remains universally comprehended. History has shown that the natural tendency of all languages is to split into dialects and eventually into new languages. This must be resisted if English is to remain globally understood. The rules of its grammar must be universally taught and applied, and England, the land of its origin, should play a leading role in this essential mission.