Holyrood's children must have their say;Platform;Opinion

5th February 1999 at 00:00
No definition of a Scottish curriculum is complete without asking pupils what they want to see, says Frank Adams

TWO YEARS ago I described the challenge to the curriculum council's ingenuity in developing a Scottish curriculum that would be relevant to a society which can celebrate the doubtful history of Braveheart, revel in the couthy images of Hamish Macbeth and yet for many means living in the stark reality of Trainspotting or Looking after Jo Jo at one and the same time.

The debate about national identity has grown and, three months from the first elections for a parliament, it is difficult to avoid the issue in the media. Yet a voice absent in the debate is that of pupils whose lives will be more affected by Holyrood than those of their parents and teachers.

What do they think about being Scottish and about Scottishness in the curriculum? What do children from ethnic minorities think about their identity in Scotland today? With this in mind I embarked on a research study with pupils from primary 6 to the second year of secondary school.

The study looks, among other things, at how pupils perceive themselves in terms of being British, Scottish or other national identity or some combination of these and what it is that gives them that identity. It also asks what they themselves think about the Scottish dimension in the curriculum. Finally, the study looks at what they know about Scottish history, given the criticisms that have been levelled at the extent of that knowledge in schools.

So far the work has been carried out in three primary schools and two secondaries with a sample of 30 pupils aged from nine to 14 using both semi-structured individual interviews and an open-ended discussion with six pupils from each school. More extended work on a national sample of schools and pupils will take place between now and the summer.

Almost all of the pupils in the pilot appear secure in their identity as being Scottish and how that relates to being British. The sample included a small number from ethnic minorities who were secure in their "hyphenated" identity as Scottish and something else. Of more interest, however, are the markers that this age-group appear to use in coming to the conclusion that they are more Scottish than anything else.

Almost half of the sample gave "it's where I was born" or "it's where I live" as the main marker of what makes them Scots while only a quarter mentioned their parents (or a parent) as being important. This appears to be in line with research elsewhere in the UK where place of birth appears to be the crucial factor in perceiving nationality. A small number of the responses mentioned Scottish history and traditions as being important parts of their identity but so far there is not much sign of a Braveheart factor.

Despite the identification of place of birth or residence, the pupils were clear that not everyone living in Scotland is Scottish. They understood that emigration to Scotland takes place and that some Scottish children have parents who are not themselves Scottish. When it comes to whether "non-Scottish" people can become Scottish there was much less clarity. Most did not know but a small number referred to the need to "adapt to the lifestyle" or to "get the accent" in order to become Scots. Might there be a hint of the pressure that falls on outsiders to accommodate and assimilate in order to become accepted?

The majority of pupils felt that being Scottish was important to them while a substantial minority felt this to only a small extent or not at all. Articulating the reasons for their views was difficult for a number of pupils and led to many of the responses being no clearer than simply "being proud" of Scotland or reiterating that Scotland is where they were born. Interestingly, a Scots accent and Scottish scenery were important to some giving some comfort to the Scottish Tourist Board that we become consumers of our own tourist image early in life.

This is borne out by the responses to the question: "What are the best things about being Scottish?" A fifth were related to tourist icons like Edinburgh Castle and Loch Ness. Less happily for the STB, nearly 40 per cent of responses to the question "What are the worst things about being Scottish?" identify the weather. Second worst, however, was the attitude of English people to the Scots or being mistaken for English people when abroad, which offended enough for it to be mentioned in 16 per cent of responses.

So far the pupils in the pilot schools broadly agree with the view of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. They want a lot of Scottish material in history, English and geography and don't really see how there could be more in maths and science. But what do they already know about Scottish history (as distinct from what Scottish history is taught in schools)? The topics in Scottish history most recognised were the First World War, Mary Queen of Scots, Robert the Bruce and Bannockburn. The least recognised were the bombing of the Clydeside shipyards, the Clearances and the Romans in Scotland.

Clearly it is too early to make any kind of analysis, but it is interesting that the visit of a folk singer or storyteller or a workshop conducted by Scottish Opera is very marked in the consciousness of pupils when it comes to remembering historical events.

The research now moves on to a wider geographical area and a wider sample of pupils - from city schools with diverse ethnic populations through to rural schools with much less diversity. I hope it will contribute to disentangling concepts like national pride and national sentiment from others like nationalistic pride or chauvinism as Holyrood begins to look at what Scottish education might mean in the new millennium.

Frank Adams is senior lecturer, department of education theory and practice, faculty of education, Edinburgh University.

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