A rich culture to show pride in
A move to enhance the teaching of Scottish culture in schools took a step forward at the Scottish Parliament's public petitions committee meeting earlier this term.
In response to a request for a review of the study of Scottish history, literature and languages at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, the cross-party committee agreed to pursue discussion with the Scottish Executive, Learning and Teaching Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, HM Inspectorate of Education, universities and other relevant education bodies.
The petition, from the Literature Forum for Scotland, submitted that "the present arrangements for the study of these disciplines at primary, secondary and tertiary levels are inadequate, and requests that Parliament review and debate them with a view to establishing effective frameworks to ensure that all citizens of Scotland have the opportunity to understand these key aspects of their own society and culture."
Donald Smith, convener of the Literature Forum, which includes the Society of Authors in Scotland, the Scottish Book Trust, the Gaelic Books Council and the Saltire Society, told the committee: "We're not asking for a mandatory system but for a review. It's about addressing the strategic level. We do not feel the recent cultural commission report presented a clear strategy on culture in education and that is a profound disappointment."
Supported by over 500 Scottish writers, academics, journalists and broadcasters, the petition identified the main problems as: a lack of a co-ordinated strategic framework and effective delivery mechanisms, piecemeal provision of core cultural elements, a lack of knowledge of Scottish literature, languages and history among teachers and a lack of appropriate (and appropriately priced) educational materials designed specifically for Scottish schools.
It called for a pro-active policy to include increased provision for the experience and study of Scottish literature, languages and history complemented by appropriate assessment. It also asked for more back-up for teachers through inclusion of Scottish literature and languages in initial training and professional development.
Dr Smith described the petition as "an appeal to the educational principle that people learn best by learning about and through their own environment".
He believes a proper strategy would energise teachers and lead to more resources for schools.
Teachers would need support, he said, because many may not have received a fully rounded education in Scottish culture.
James McGonigal, professor of English in education at Glasgow University and one of the petition's signatories, welcomed the committee's decision.
"It is an embarrassment for a country which is developing a better sense of itself that there is a lack of commitment to its literatures and languages in its national education system," he said.
He believes the Scottish Parliament needs to help give pupils knowledge and understanding of what makes their own culture distinctive, not just in literature, language, local dialects and history but also in music, song, dance, art and architecture. This would, he says, engender the confidence the Executive wants Scots to have.
"If you denigrate the local language, you undermine the standard language,"
he says. "You make it seem foreign to the pupils' own community experience.
In terms of linguistic inclusion we must explore all our languages, including minority languages like Urdu and Punjabi, and alert pupils to the significance of them.
"The Executive has emphasised social inclusion in education in recent years. Linguistic inclusion is part of that. The study of Scots, for example, has to be part of a general study of languages."
Professor McGonigal regrets the withdrawal of the mandate for at least one Scottish text in Higher Still, but remains optimistic.
"There are many more positive things going on in primary and lower secondary levels," he says.
"There are many new, exciting and enjoyable Scots texts and resources being used widely. Scottish writers and storytellers are visiting schools regularly, there is input from the Scottish Arts Council and the Scottish Poetry Library into schools and the Association for Scottish Literary Studies has been working for decades to provide a focus on Scottish literature in education, providing study notes, tapes and anthologies for schools in all of Scotland's languages."
There should, he agrees, be more Scottish cultural provision in teacher training. Primary BEd students at Glasgow encounter a lot of Scottish material in their third year and are, he says, enthusiastic about it.
"As long as teachers have a good knowledge base and sound resources, things will go forward well. But I am not for a compulsory curriculum.
"You can't be prescriptive about culture. That's totalitarian. It's about richness, not prescription."