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In defence of the handwritten exam

The head of Ofqual says handwritten exams are no longer valid, but the old-fashioned pen and paper h

Pen and paper exams should be scrapped in favour of tests conducted on a computer, according to the head of England's exams watchdog.

Isabel Nisbet, chief executive of Ofqual, has told the Times Educational Supplement that children "use IT as their natural medium for identifying and exploring new issues and deepening their knowledge."

Apparently, handwritten exams are becoming "invalid" because they are increasingly different from the way in which children learn.

Different they may be, but it does not make abolishing them right.

While computers are undeniably an influential and powerful learning tool for children, they have not yet rendered the pen and pencil obsolete. There are still great benefits for children to gain from using these traditional classroom tools.

Anyone who has sat in front of a 12-page, ruled answer booklet with an hour to write about Death of a Salesman will know that the essay they come up with will differ significantly from anything they put into a word processor.

There is little time for self-editing. There is no backspace. Answers have to be planned, structured and to the point. Self-discipline is required.

To succeed, a child has to know what they are saying before it leaves the pen. It requires practice and skills that may have real transferable benefits for a working world where getting things right the first time can be essential.

Computers do not necessarily encourage a lazy approach to writing, but nor do they pressure students to strive to achieve excellence in spelling, punctuation and grammar without the aid of a spell-check button.

Of course, such features may well be disabled in an exam environment, but with Michael Gove so keen to push the importance of spelling and grammar to exam boards, surely a move to computerised tests would be a step in the wrong direction.

This is not just an English language issue. Mathematics and the sciences are subjects that require a flow of thinking to come to a conclusion. This flow can only come from a pen or pencil.

The English exam boards long ago decided that, when it comes to answering questions, it is not just about the destination, it is also about the journey.

Seeing how an answer is reached is just as important as the answer itself.

The process of 'working out' can only be naturally produced when handwritten. Thoughts can move from the brain to the paper seamlessly without the self-consciousness and over-analysis of word processing.

The link between the hand and the brain is a symbiotic one, with research suggesting handwriting can boost brain development and capacity, particularly in young children.

In essence, you can understand so much more about a person and the way in which their mind works from what comes from their pen, rather than their keyboard.

If nothing else, any regular computer user who has scrawled an incomprehensible letter or note by hand recently will tell you our reliance on word processing is doing terrible things to our penmanship.

If the pen and paper are not to be saved for the sake of language and self-discipline, can they at least be saved for the sake of our handwriting?