Decisions made on Scottish texts are mind-boggling

29th June 2012 at 01:00
The trouble with Michael Russell's diktat is that it has flawed thinking at its heart and is not in the intended spirit of the new curriculum

I feel passionately, not only as a principal teacher of English but also as a published Scottish poet, that Michael Russell should reverse his decision to include a compulsory question on Scottish texts in the new Higher and National 5 English exams.

When Mr Russell announced that decision on the symbolic date of 25 January this year, he did so without formal consultation with a broad range of English teachers or the teaching unions. That was a disappointing error of judgement.

As part of the announcement he said: "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."

Those sentiments would be echoed by every teacher of English in Scotland. It is vital as part of the exploration of their heritage that our young people study texts by Scottish writers and on Scottish themes, and, contrary to a widespread misconception, it has been emphasised for some time now that English courses at all levels should include one Scottish text which is taught. I for one would be happy to see that become a mandatory feature of all the new courses - with the emphasis on "taught".

The problem, and where most English teachers would disagree with Mr Russell, is with his diktat that it will now be a requirement to answer an examination question on at least one of these texts.

That diktat has flawed educational thinking at its heart and is completely contrary to the spirit of the new curriculum that he seeks to promote. The reason it is flawed is that it uses assessment for compulsion rather than assessment for learning. Assessment for learning, as he should be aware, is a central tenet of the Curriculum for Excellence.

Rather than trusting teachers to be creative, risk-taking and autonomous in the way they select Scottish texts with and for the pupils in front of them, rather than encouraging personalisation and choice (two other core principles at the heart of CfE), he has sought to impose "a political direction on what is taught in our schools", to quote former general secretary of the EIS Ronnie Smith. And that will result in limiting and narrowing what teachers will do.

The only way to ensure that all pupils will be able to answer a question on a Scottish text is to set what is often called a context question on each of the texts in a prescribed list. That is the very antithesis of what is required to "inspire the future generations of Scottish writers". What the context question does is to force teachers and their pupils to over-analyse and over-revise texts in order to ensure success in the exam at the expense of holistic exploration and enjoyment (another key CfE principle).

Sixteen year-olds end up loathing texts that have been approached in that way, not being inspired by them.

The way to inspire future writers is to give young people more opportunities to move from analysis to creation - in other words, to use reading, discussion and "light-touch" analysis to stimulate creative writing. This is the approach used by all professional writers who visit schools or run creative writing courses, and teachers have been using this "writer's craft" methodology for years.

The main argument in favour of his diktat is, of course, that it ensures that every English teacher will teach something Scottish. But even if we accept the premise that there are teachers covering Scottish literature only in the most cursory fashion, why should pupils suffer a regressive assessment because of their failings? There are surely other means of checking how well teachers stick to the Scottish element, rather than skewing the whole exam and therefore the whole teaching approach so that pupils have to sit a context question.

But hand in hand with the monitoring of teachers must come proper support for them. Deep, meaningful and inspiring continuing professional development courses and resources will go much further in producing the creative, risk-taking and autonomous English teachers I mentioned earlier, than Mr Russell's stress on exam compulsion. Extensive funding for contemporary writers to work in schools will show a proper respect for this generation of Scottish writers as well as the next.

I want to believe that Mr 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 the diversity of Scottish literature to our pupils, instead of enriching their learning and broadening their opportunities as writers, it will close them off and narrow them; instead of liberating teachers to make their own choices based on their knowledge of the pupils in front of them, it will shackle us.

At the end of the day it is teachers who know best how to educate, not government ministers and not committees. If he had just talked sufficiently to English teachers, this situation could have been avoided.

However, it's not too late: all true leaders and learners make mistakes, but they have the courage to admit them, to correct them and to grow from them. As the lead-learner in Scotland, Michael Russell must be the model of that process for our young people. I wish him well on his own continuing learning-journey to excellence.

Allan Crosbie teaches English in Edinburgh and was awarded "Teacher Trailblazer" status by The Poetry Society in 2009 for showing "exceptional dedication to the teaching of poetry".

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