When I started work, a kindly senior colleague advised me never, never to admit that I could touch type or take shorthand.
I’d never get out of the secretary bracket, she said. It’s true that, in professing ignorance of the spiral-bound notebook and pencil, I saved myself from a lifetime of taking dictation. But typing? Couldn’t live without it.
Luckily, computers arrived in offices soon after my first job and I kept up speedy and accurate typing on the new machines. Now it’s rare to find a Young Person who has learnt to type, despite the overwhelming number of careers that require computer literacy and, by extension, keyboard literacy.
And it is not taught in schools, despite the head of English at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority advising its reintroduction seven years ago, as a surprisingly enlightening press release from the KAZ Typing Tutor program informs me.
It is a mandatory subject in the US and several European countries, where it is seen as a basic skill. Is it because typing is still perceived as somehow humdrum or, worse, demeaning? A few schools in England teach touch typing, but not many. Not enough.
Like cooking, typing has been seen as all rather “domestic” and unaspirational to those in charge of education. But as youth unemployment figures rise and the ritzier subjects prove to be preparation for, uh, not much, it’s time to revise what is actually helpful. Food is one of the very few sectors where there seems to be opportunities, but the chefs I talk to are bewildered by the lack of basic understanding by young trainees.
And last year, Michael Gove allowed teachers to ignore the ICT curriculum because it was so dire. He felt there was too much emphasis on office skills, and not enough understanding creative computing. But careers that require straightforward keyboard work outnumber the silicon roundabout-type stuff quite substantially. It is also an equal opportunities skill – it may have been taught, in the old days, at the comps and the secondary moderns rather than the grammar schools, but it is no longer something for the “girls”; something to do before they find a nice man and settle down.
Perhaps the image of children lined up with their hands hidden inside boxes, heads turned to the side to read words they must input, is all a bit Dickensian for our modernising times. But unless and until someone invents a keyboard operated by thumbs for the texting generation, that’s how it’s got to be. That or the return of Mavis Beacon, that fictional character from the early days of PCs, who seems to have become a real person.