LAST WEEK a knock on the curved lintel of my igloo in North Glasgow announced the arrival of Dr Rose Mary Harley, a microbiologist and acquaintance from my long-haired days at Strathclyde University.
Last week, a knock on the curved lintel of my igloo in North Glasgow announced the arrival of Dr Rose Mary Harley, a microbiologist and acquaintance from my long-haired days at Strathclyde University.
A sponsor of good causes, she seductively invited me to teach in a charity-funded school in Bangladesh for one month, starting in early January. Fluttering her eyelashes, she coquettishly intimated it would be on a voluntary basis and I’d also have to pay the cost of my flights, accommodation, health insurance, malaria tablets and, quite possibly the biggest outlay, loo rolls.
Voices inside my head debated the optimum plausible reason to decline her offer. Just as I was about to fib that a menacing long-range horoscope had warned against travelling to any country beginning with B and ending in H, the do-gooder let slip that former East Pakistan would be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit during my stay. Forsaking the character-building weather of Alba for the warm climes of Bangladesh would be a sacrifice but, selflessly as ever, one I was willing to make.
When I looked at the syllabus of the Bangladeshi school, I was outraged. True, the children learn elements of Shakespeare, Somerset Maughan and Hemingway but shockingly, they are taught literature written by Bangladeshi authors. Thankfully, the Educational Instititute of Scotland (EIS) and its general secretary Larry Flanagan are resisting the notion that Jock Tamson’s bairns should be forced to sit a Higher English exam containing one question on a book, play or poem by an indigenous wordsmith.
The Dr No to Scots language stance of the EIS has been widely criticised; after all, in a poll, 90 per cent of respondents stated that a Scottish text question was desirable.
To be fair, it may be the case that Paris has ditched the parochial scribblings of Dumas, Hugo and Emile Zola and replaced them with the higher quality foreign prose of Welsh, Nietzsche and Umberto Eco.
Perhaps the EIS has uncovered that schools in the US have stopped selling the stodgy literature of Arthur Miller to kids and have terminated the teaching of misery-laden Steinbeck novels, a man whose typewriter allegedly committed suicide, found hanging by its ribbon from a bathroom door.
Mr Flanagan adopts a somewhat Jekyll and Hyde position, praising Scots writing but declaring hostility to every Higher English pupil being exposed to it. He opines that a compulsory Scottish question will lead to teachers teaching to the test. Hellooooo??? With regard to teaching to the test, every honest teacher will confess to being a justified sinner. This year, on analysing answer papers, the Sherlocks at the Scottish Qualifications Authority bemoaned the problem of English teachers teaching a narrow part of a syllabus to increase attainment, reporting instances of entire classes producing rehearsed answers to fit national qualification test questions. It’s an understandable, pragmatic strategy, akin to driving instructors in Holland not putting their trainees through a great deal of hill-start practice.
The EIS claims that most schools already teach Scottish texts. But by making a Scottish question mandatory, teachers of English are compelled to look in the mirror and reflect on the reasons why they disparage the output of native playwrights, poets and novelists. Only in Scotland could it be controversial to ask pupils to read and be examined in a work written by one of their own.
Behind the EIS bluster, I think the true reluctance to embrace Scotland’s rich heritage regarding the written word is a feeling that the SNP’s education policy is political, that it is furthering the cause of nationalism. It’s no secret that many of the EIS leadership are enmeshed with the Labour Party, a party that wishes Scotland to remain within the UK. Exposing children to Scottish culture could have a deleterious effect in maintaining the pro-Union narrative that rules the roost in most schools.
When I was a schoolboy, I was taught the rather camp poems of Wordsworth but denied knowledge of Hugh MacDairmid.
How late it was, how late it was that I discovered James Kelman, not as a novelist, but as an unkempt man who drank in the same Saltmarket pub as me.
Failing to truly value the talent of Sir Walter Scott and others is a monumental mistake by the EIS.