It's the thought that counts

12th December 2008 at 00:00

As the festive season approaches, thoughts naturally turn to suitable gifts for friends and colleagues. Books are always a good standby. It is tempting to recommend the latest edition of Scottish Education edited by Bryce and Humes, but that would be self-indulgent. In any case, at more than 1,000 pages, it is hardly a stocking-filler.

If you are looking for something light and entertaining, with a sharp satirical edge, you could do worse than choose one of the novels of Christopher Brookmyre. Some have educational themes, with nicely subversive portrayals of teachers and pupils. I have set aside his latest, A Snowball in Hell, as one to be enjoyed over Christmas.

For senior staff, on no account give them anything to do with management or leadership. That would merely encourage them to launch yet another series of pointless initiatives, dressed up in the latest jargon. However, Adrian Furnham's excellent Management Mumbo Jumbo could be sent as an anonymous gift to particularly deserving cases. Longer-term, what is needed is a complete hatchet-job on the pretensions of management as an academic discipline. That's another item to add to my retirement list of things to do.

In previous articles, I have remarked on the absence of much in the way of historical sense among the great and good in Scottish education. There is no shortage of fine books on Scottish history, so one of those would make a useful contribution to the professional development of our leaders.

In the case of the inspectorate, I have a more precise recommendation to offer. One of my doctoral students has had occasion to look at early inspectorate reports. We have both been struck by how interesting, committed and informative they seem in comparison with today's reports, which are often so bland as to be virtually meaningless. A nicely bound collection of 19th-century HMI reports would, therefore, make an instructive gift for the current cohort of inspectors.

I have two very different suggestions for colleagues who have had a particularly rough term. If you judge they need something gentle and soothing, you need look no further than Alexander McCall Smith. Either his Scotland Street stories or any of his novels set in Botswana should help to restore the equilibrium.

If you judge your friend is verging on the homicidal, something more cathartic may be required. Scotland is fortunate to have many excellent crime writers, including Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and Val McDermid. McDermid's most recent novel, A Darker Domain, is set against the miners' strike in Fife in the 1980s, contrasting with contemporary scenes in Scotland and Italy.

The book that has made the strongest impact on me in 2008 is Maggie Ferguson's wonderful biography of the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. It is a carefully-researched and beautifully-written account of a talented but troubled man, who produced poetry and prose that has touched the hearts and minds of many people. I cannot recommend it too highly.

Finally, a mischievous thought. If you have a colleague to whom you feel obliged to give a gift but do not really regard as a friend, don't rule out the possibility of a complete set of A Curriculum for Excellence documents. That should get collegial working off to a lively start in 2009.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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