National treasures short-change pupils

17th October 2014 at 01:00
Scottish literature focus is too narrow, says top school leader

Schools in Scotland are in danger of becoming parochial if too much study time is dedicated to national literature, a leading headteacher has warned.

Melvyn Roffe, newly appointed principal of the independent George Watson's College in Edinburgh, raised fears that Scotland risked repeating England's "mistake" of seeking to "overly" promote native writers above foreign voices.

His concerns coincided with the controversial introduction of a compulsory question on Scottish texts for all candidates sitting National 5 and Higher exams in English.

Speaking exclusively to TESS, Mr Roffe - who has just assumed his first Scottish headship - also warned that Curriculum for Excellence was not yet equal to international qualifications and might fail to push the brightest pupils sufficiently.

"In the past few weeks I have heard more about Robert Burns' role in romantic literature than ever before," he said.

"It is clearly very important that Scottish literature is prominent in the English [CfE] curriculum.and in any culture we must be proud of its distinctiveness, but we must also be very aware of its role in global literature. There has got to be a balance with preparing pupils for English courses at universities across the whole of Europe and the world."

Earlier this year there was an outcry south of the border when then education secretary Michael Gove unveiled plans for a greater focus on British writers in GCSE English literature. The announcement prompted fears that classics such as US author John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men would be dropped - although Mr Gove was adamant that no texts should be banned.

Outlining his concerns that CfE might not challenge the most capable students, Mr Roffe said: "You could not argue that the curriculum has not been thought through well.[but] I sense a risk that the most-able pupils are not extended to the extent they should be."

He explained that the International Baccalaureate (IB) qualification, which George Watson's College offers as an alternative to Highers and the new Nationals, stretched pupils, who were unlikely ever to score 100 per cent. By contrast, he said, students doing Scottish Qualifications Authority courses under CfE could well receive full marks.

"I would not want anything in the development of CfE to cap the incentive for all pupils, and especially the most-able ones, to keep going and to reach beyond," Mr Roffe said. "My impression from talking to colleagues and pupils is that there is a danger with the way the qualifications are set up."

He was "not absolutely convinced yet" that SQA courses stood "shoulder to shoulder" with international qualifications like IB. He added: "I'm not for a moment saying that is not happening, but I'm saying as we develop these qualifications, that is what I will be looking at."

Pupils previously studied a range of Scottish novels, plays and poetry by authors from Burns to Irvine Welsh, alongside classics by Shakespeare and Steinbeck. However, the national focus was not obligatory. The change came into force this summer when candidates sitting the first National 5 exams had to answer at least one question on a Scottish text. From next summer, Higher English candidates must do the same.

The EIS teaching union, which previously dismissed mandatory questions on Scottish texts as "nationalistic fervour", remained against "using exams to enforce the study of Scottish literature". However, general secretary Larry Flanagan welcomed the fact that curriculum content in Scotland was ultimately decided by teachers, not politicians.

Headteachers' association School Leaders Scotland (SLS) stressed that Scottish texts were not studied "to the exclusion" of foreign works. SLS general secretary Ken Cunningham said that initial feedback on the new qualifications suggested they were more rigorous, not less. It was now up to teachers to ensure that CfE delivered, he added.

The Scottish government defended its decision on the mandatory question, stating that it was based on advice from an expert working group that Scottish literature should be "emphasised and safeguarded" without excluding other works.

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