EIS tells Mike Russell to drop Scots question
EDUCATION secretary Mike Russell was urged yesterday to reverse a controversial decision to include a compulsory question on Scottish texts in the Higher English examination taken every year by thousands of schoolchildren.
Under plans put forward by the Scottish Government and endorsed by the Makar (Scotland’s poet laureate) Liz Lochhead, every pupil sitting the exam from 2014 “will answer at least one question” on a Scottish novel, play or poem.
But teachers meeting at the annual meeting of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) in Dundee yesterday backed a motion calling for the idea to be scrapped, describing the plans as “nothing to do with education”.
The vote by Scotland’s largest teaching union comes just days before a crucial meeting of the Scottish Qualifications Authority to discuss which Scottish texts would be on an official list. A list of more than 160 texts drawn up by Alan Riach, professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, is also about to be published.
Allan Crosbie, an English teacher from Edinburgh, said that although the profession had no issue with teaching Scottish texts, the government’s plans were restrictive.
He said: “The problem, and where most English teachers would disagree with Liz Lochhead and Mike Russell, is the diktat that it will now be a requirement to answer an exam question on at least one of these texts.
“The diktat has flawed educational thinking at its heart and is completely contrary to the spirit of the new curriculum. Rather than trusting teachers to be creative, risk-taking and autonomous, this diktat sought to impose what [former EIS general secretary] Ronnie Smith said at the time was a political direction on what is taught in our schools and that will result in limiting and narrowing what teachers do.
“I want to believe that Mike Russell’s decision was made for the best of motives, but it will end up doing the opposite of what was intended. Instead of opening up diversity, enriching children’s learning, it will close it off and narrow it. If only Mike Russell had talked to English teachers, this situation could have been avoided.”
Alan Janeczko, a science teacher from East Dunbartonshire, added: “This idea has nothing to do with education and more to do with someone in the Scottish Government being carried along on a wave of nationalistic fervour. I’m not sure this is being done for sound educational reasons.”
The EIS motion, which was backed overwhelmingly, called on the Scottish Government, SQA and Education Scotland to revoke the decision.
Currently students have the option of answering a question on a Scottish text, however the new measure will make it compulsory. The announcement, made in January to coincide with Burns Night, confirmed the government’s acceptance of the recommendation from the Scottish Studies Working Group, which was aimed at ensuring future generations of Scots grow up with an understanding of their culture and literary heritage. At the time, Russell said: “Our country has a rich and world-renowned literary tradition. Scotland’s contribution to literature is marked down the generations and we want our children and young people to have the chance to learn about our literary tradition and to inspire the future generations of Scottish writers.”
The list compiled by Riach, and to be published by Perspectives magazine, includes well-known Scottish writers and more obscure texts dating back centuries. Riach says the list is necessary because Scottish literature has been so neglected. “Until recently, fine teachers might introduce Scottish literature to schoolchildren with deep knowledge and contagious enthusiasm but the provision in schools was entirely optional. Many other teachers might have no interest in teaching the literature of the country and have not been required to do so.
“The new directive could thus be welcomed as a wonderful opportunity or it might be resisted as an imposition.”
In compiling the list, Riach claims “literary quality comes first. Then, aye, indeed, I’d want to say that the experience of women as much as that of men should be there, and that there should obviously be full acknowledgement of the languages in which Scottish literature has been composed – pre-eminently Gaelic, Scots and English.”
James Robertson, twice-winner of the Saltire Prize for Literature, praised Riach’s list, saying: “This kind of narrative has been mostly lacking in the teaching of Scottish literature and it’s a highly commendable corrective to the notion that occasionally, as if by accident, we produce a world-class writer like Burns or Scott or Spark. The Riach ‘open canon’ provides a context for those famous names. It is both comprehensive and open to challenge. It disputes negative attitudes to our culture but itself demands discussion and argument.”
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