The demise of handwriting?

Dr Millan Sachania

Head Master, Immanuel College

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Into the possession of a brand-new and very fine Montblanc fountain pen I came over the Christmas holiday — a gift I bought for myself from the Montblanc Bond Street branch, where I enjoyed some hours experimenting with a range of nibs.

The pen has proven to be an excellent purchase.  It has given my handwriting a new lease of life and spurred me to handwrite a number of letters and notes which otherwise might not have been written at all.  And it has improved my handwriting, on which I have always prided myself, though in recent years my script has become less reliable, somewhat uncontrolled and often illegible owing to the inevitable deterioration of my fine motor skills on account of lack of practice.

It was thus with interest that I followed some recent news stories on the possible demise of handwritten scripts for public examinations. In a December Telegraph article, I read that Keith Metcalfe, headmaster at Malvern College, in Worcestershire, has called on exam boards to discontinue compulsory handwritten exams for GCSEs and A Levels “in favour of typed papers, in order ‘to improve fairness and accessibility for all’”.  The report goes on:

"Mr Metcalfe said that the pandemic meant students have become used to touch-typing and online learning, reinforcing his view that ‘long periods of handwriting can become increasingly tiring’.  He added that schools should continue to teach both typing and handwriting skills in equal measure, but stressed that it is important for exam boards to abandon ‘antiquated’ handwritten exams. ‘Those who spend more time touch-typing can lose speed and clarity of handwriting and thus are not able to express their ideas so proficiently in exams where handwritten answers are required’, said Mr Metcalfe."

Hot on the heels of this report came the news that the Edexcel board plans to introduce on-screen English GCSE examinations from 2025.  The AQA examination board is also rolling out on-screen exams in the next few years.

All this has excited much controversy, with some critics expressing concern that the deeper processing of thought is diluted when handwriting is eliminated from the learning process.  Certainly there is a strong case for a hybrid approach, where pupils develop a toolbox of skills on which they can draw, depending on the activity they are undertaking and the outcomes they are seeking.  I often ponder on how manual or digital processes affect such outcomes.  Many, if not most, composers now write music directly on music-software and notational platforms rather than writing by hand on manuscript paper.  Does this affect the shape and quiddity of the final composition, I wonder?

I am sure it does, because the processing of the material is quite different.  Even more pertinent for me as a music scholar is the lack of insight such a digital approach gives into the compositional process.  Some years ago I had the privilege of editing Poulenc’s Sonata for Oboe and Piano for his publisher, and I located the original manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.  And it was a joy to gain an entry into Poulenc’s compositional process: he had written his notation in blue ink, and where he changed his mind, he had used a razor blade to scrape off the ink from the surface of the paper so he could pen his revision over the original.  Just analysing the surface of the paper thus gave an insight into Poulenc’s thought processes.  It is much harder to probe into such compositional decisions in the post-Poulenc digital world, though perhaps not impossible if composers retain computer files of their previous drafts; but even then not easy to trace every step of their thinking.

Back we cannot turn the clock, and the editing opportunities that our present technology provides us would I am sure have been the stuff of envy for our forebears. Would Schubert’s piano trios and Rachmaninov’s piano concertos have been better had their composers used notational and sequencing software to compose them?  Who knows?  All I can say is that manual processing, for me, somehow makes more tangible the guiding hand of the human spirit in the creative process.  And this is something we must strive not to lose as we inevitably slip further into the digital world.


12 January 2024