In this age of cell phones, text messages and computer keyboards, one Scottish school has returned to basics. It's teaching youngsters the neglected art of writing with a fountain pen.
There is no clacking of keyboards in most classrooms at the Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville Junior School, although there is a full range of facilities for computer lessons and technology isn't being ignored.
But the private school's principal believes the old-fashioned pens have helped boost the academic performance and self-esteem of his 1,200 pupils.
"The pens improve the quality of work because they force the children to take care, and better work improves self-esteem," principal Bryan Lewis said. "Proper handwriting is as relevant today as it ever has been."
Students as young as 7 have been instructed to forgo their ball point pens and get to grips with its more artful predecessor. By the time they reach grade five, at age 9, they are expected to write mainly with fountain pens.
At an English class recently, students worked at perfecting a skill that is under threat from the onset of e-mail — the art of writing a letter by hand. Each child's work was meticulous and clearly presented in the upright, graceful strokes of a fountain pen.
Ten-year-old Cailean Gall has been using fountain pens in class for two years. It took the keen soccer player one month to master the pen and, like all pupils at the school, still has regular handwriting lessons.
"At the start it was hard because I kept smudging, but you get used to it," he said. "I still have to use a pencil for math, and now I find it strange using the pencils. I like it because it makes me concentrate much more on my work."
Cailean now uses his fountain pen even for non-school work, but classmate Katie Walker, 11, prefers to use ball point and pencil when not in class.
"I use it for schoolwork and homework only," she said. "It is quite easy using a fountain pen once you're used to it. My parents say it's improved my work enormously."
Teachers taught too
The children learn a handwriting style developed by teachers at the school, which charges $12,500 a year. New teachers are also put through a course on how to write with pens — as well as refresher courses on literacy and numeracy — before they are let loose in classes.
Lewis said the school's 7- and 8-year-olds use fountain pens for 80 percent to 90 percent of their work, reverting to pencils for such subjects as math.
"I don't see fountain pens as old-fashioned or outmoded. Modern fountain pens are beautiful to use; it's not like in the old days of broken nibs and smudging," Lewis said. "We have a particular writing style and we have developed it very carefully and found a way that allows left- and right-handed people to write without smudging."
Parent Susan Garlick supports the school and believes the use of fountain pens has improved the work of her daughter Elisabeth, an 11-year-old in grade 7. "Her handwriting is beautiful," Garlick said.
Some people in wealthy nations argue that handwriting is becoming less important because of the growing use of cell phone text messaging and typing on computers, but the school disagrees.
In August, for example, examiners at the Scottish Qualifications Agency complained they had difficulty deciphering the scrawl of many students on exam papers used to determine admission to universities.
"We talk of the paperless office and the paperless world, but this is not true," Lewis said. "You still need to have proper handwriting skills."