Schools should capitalise on the Braveheart generation to advance the place of Robert Burns and the Scots language in the curriculum, according to the optimists who attended the three-day International Bicentenary Burns conference held in Glasgow last week.
Pessimists, however, saw teacher ignorance and even hostility towards the Scots language and history as major hurdles. During discussion, Moira Gray, head of English at St Andrew's Academy in Paisley, said only two of eight teachers in her department were willing to teach the Burns option in Higher English. She herself admitted to being unaware of the intellectual depth in Burns's works.
Barbara Gillespie, a former principal teacher of learning support at Balerno High, felt the reason was "downright hostility". A more lenient view from John Hodgart, principal teacher of English at Garnock Academy in Ayrshire, who has written a teachers' guide on Burns, was that "teachers' ain education hasn'ae equipped them to be confident about teaching Scots".
He attempted to help with notes, tapes and other resources, even offering to go into classrooms to read from Burns where teachers lacked confidence. "At the end of the day, you have got to leave the choice to the individual teacher, " Mr Hodgart cautioned. In a passionately bilingual address, he declared: "We are failing in our duty as teachers if we ignore Burns . . . How long can we continue praising Burns as our national bard and treat his language as a foreign language?" The intermittent value placed on Burns in many schools, with the January Burns suppers virtually the only exposure given to his works, attracted frequent criticism. But Jim Alison, the retired HMI specialist in English, said he believed Burns "has seldom if ever been grossly neglected; on the other hand, he has seldom figured in any planned fashion. He tends to be an extra, sometimes a treat but never fully part of the curriculum."
Several speakers suggested that schools should go on the offensive to bring Burns into the mainstream. The range of his material and the quality of his writing meant he was without equal in having the potential for appealing to all stages from early primary to sixth-year secondary, according to Mr Alison.
Mr Hodgart described Burns's works as "a verbal and imaginative voyage of discovery". Teachers would find in Burns a full range of linguistic expression from the elevated language of formal English to the "mair homely" expressions of Scots.
Jan Mathieson, former head of English at Ardrossan Academy, stressed the importance of "introducing youngsters to literature which is of the highest literary quality, is Scottish, and stands comparison with the best of international literature." Burns could be used for a wide range of activities with pupils, which she illustrated with tabloid newspaper versions of Tam o'Shanter created by younger secondary pupils.
The session on the teaching of Burns in schools ended however on a relatively upbeat note. Ronnie Renton of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, who is depute head at St Aloysius College in Glasgow, commented: "I find that young teachers coming into school no longer ask why they should teach Scottish literature, they ask how. That's a big change."