A place in the curriculum for the people's poet

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Rabbie Burns certainly has plenty of burdens to shoulder these days. As the conference held last week in Glasgow amply demonstrated (page five), he remains one of Scotland's favourite sons, inevitably perhaps in the bicentenary year of his death. But the works of our national poet are still seen as the major vehicle for rescuing the Scots language from the condescension that continues to be meted out to it. It is a great expectation.

Yet the potential of Burns's contribution to the Scottish curriculum remains greatly underestimated. Shakespeare may be in but Burns rarely takes centre-stage apart, perhaps, from the annual January beanfeast.

Jim Alison, the former English HMI, made the provocative claim that, such is the range of his appeal to virtually all ages, no other poet is so accessible from early primary through to sixth year secondary. A mere recitation of his equals - Wordsworth, Pope, Tennyson, Chaucer, Shakespeare - is sufficient to reinforce the point. But while Mr Alison may be right in suggesting that Burns has never been grossly neglected in Scottish schools, it is the nature of the attention paid to him that requires to change.

Burns suppers have their place but the poet will not be elevated to the Shakespearean league simply via an annual bout of merry-making. That is unlikely to inspire a speech from the Prince of Wales extolling the place of "the national bard" in schools. What, however, are the prospects of Burns securing such a pinnacle when, as John Hodgart of Garnock Academy pointed out, the language of the poet is treated as a foreign language? He underlined the rarity of the use of the Scots tongue at such conferences by actually speaking it in an effortless bilingual presentation.

There was, of course, the expected rehearsal of the arguments about the ignorance and even hostility to any widespread use of Burns in the school curriculum, despite the accolade of having a place (albeit optional) in the Higher examination. Is Burns the victim of pure snobbery? It was revealing that one principal teacher, and she cannot be alone, owned up to being unaware of the intellectual stimulus provided by the works of Burns. The people's poet, it seems, is not so susceptible to textual analysis as Shakespeare.

It is, however, too easy to become gloomy. When even the activists sound cheerful, things must be looking up. Scottish literature is in very much better shape than it was 10 years ago; it is better resourced and the "Scots Kist" for the 5-14 age-group is about to reinforce provision. But perhaps we shall have to wait for the next generation of teachers, the beneficiaries of that improvement, who may be better exposed and less prejudiced when it comes to Scots writing, before the nation's bard can have a more assured place in the nation's schools.

Meanwhile, as Burns supper time approaches, we have had a recent reminder that these feasts should not be dismissed lightly. Tom Sutherland, the former Beirut hostage and lifelong fan who attended last week's conference, has recalled the "joy and comfort" he found in the works of Burns during his time in captivity. And the occasion that helped spark his interest? A Burns supper when he was in fifth year at Grangemouth High in 1948.

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