It will come as no surprise to parents that handwriting in schools appears to be in a critical state.

The average school bag contains much more than a lunch box and gym kit: there is just as likely to be a mobile phone in there, and possibly a tablet as well. A large proportion of pupils also do their homework or projects on computer. It means that, unlike their parents and grandparents, modern pupils are much more likely to type than write.

The consequences of this trend are now being seen in schools where, despite the proliferation of computers, many exams are still conducted in the old way with paper and pen. Dr Beth Dickson, of Glasgow University's school of education, recently said she believes young people are growing up with little experience of handwriting, and writing in longhand is a skill that is gradually disappearing. This year's Higher English exams would appear to provide evidence it might be true.

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According to the external assessment of Higher English produced by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), more markers than ever before noticed the poor and sometimes near-illegible writing of some of the candidates.

Poor handwriting obviously makes it much harder for the markers to do their job, but the SQA's assessment goes further and suggests action should be taken. "While no candidate's work is ever left unmarked for this reason," says the report, "centres should do their best to reduce this problem by making alternative arrangements for some candidates."

What the SQA appears to be suggesting is that, if a candidate cannot write legibly, arrangements should be made for them to sit the exam on computer, and that would appear to be reasonable. But the question is: why is any pupil sitting Higher English unable to write in a readable way? Should a pupil who lacks such a basic skill be sitting the exam in the first place?

No-one in education is likely to suggest a return to the rigid writing lessons of the Victorians, especially when the cultural environment inside and outside schools is unlikely to change. In the old days, most people communicated by pen, even in school (when passing notes round the class, for example), but now most children and adults do most of their writing on computer. That is the new cultural reality.

However, it does not change the fact that being able to write clearly is a basic skill every pupil should possess. Not only does it allow them to communicate effectively, writing a sentence by hand has also been shown to aid cognitive development and understanding. Writing in longhand may not be as common as it once was, but everyone in Scotland's education system needs to be able to do it.

In the short term, some pupils sitting Higher English may have to be allowed to do so on computer, but in the longer term there should be a greater focus in the classroom not only on whether a pupil has the knowledge to sit an exam, but also on whether he or she has the ability to write legibly. It is the least that can be done for the markers, but it should be done, above all, for the sake of the pupils.