I couldn’t help but laugh when I stumbled on this story earlier today.

In a nutshell, Michigan’s Grand Rapids Public School Superintendent Bernard Taylor has stirred up controversy – by criticising pupils’ poor spelling and grammar.

The pupils, from Colt Creative Arts Academy, had written to Taylor asking him not to cut art and music programmes. So he turned up at the school, told the pupils their wish had been granted – and then reprimanded them for the bad spelling and grammar in their letters.

Some parents were not amused. One, Angel Gonzalez, huffed:

“I don’t know that guy.  He may be a great guy.  I just don’t know him personally.  I know nothing about him.  I don’t want him barging into my kids’ classroom making them feel belittled.  Even if that’s not what he intended on doing, that’s what he did.”

Okay, this is the USA and not Britain. And it’s perfectly possible to go off at a tangent, and suggest that political ideology is responsible for scrubbing the concept of failure from school education.

Write well – but not too well. That would be dangerous

For me, though, there’s an even more depressing side to the story – the idea that both reading and writing have been reduced to necessary, but ultimately functional skills. Chores, if you prefer.

These days, the school system seems to say “Learn to read, yes. Be literate enough to understand your council tax bill, but not so well that you read for pleasure or for thought. That would be dangerous”

It’s the same with writing. “Learn to write, yes. Be competent enough to let someone know you want something, but not so good that you can use the written word to put forward arguments, convince people of benefits, demolish the cant and hypocrisy of others. That would be more dangerous still”

About 10 years ago, I used to help schools set up reading clubs for Year 7 pupils. Even by then, the so-called Literacy Strategy was forcing children to focus solely on the function of reading – the skill of doing it, not the things you could actually do and learn (and become) as a reader. It had become something necessary but dull, that reduced great writing to the status of ‘texts’, issued for children to pick at with the wrong end of a educational sawbones’s scalpel.

Take pleasure in something, and it’ll lead to thought

What our clubs did was to put pleasure and possibility back into reading, and to inspire ideas, enthusiasm and healthy disagreement. They were simple, and they worked – and they got kids reading and talking in spite of what the curriculum dictated.

These days, I think we may be making the same mistakes about writing. Let’s get back to that parent. If you’re anything like me, you wouldn’t whinge to a reporter if you thought a public official had belittled your child. You’d do something much more powerful…

…you’d write him a letter.

And one to his boss. And maybe one to the newspaper. And if your argument was good, that official would have to back down.

After all, if we lose the ability to say what we mean in writing, how can we expect our children to learn to do the same?