Nurturing Scots in the next generation

10th July 2015 at 01:00
The Scots language has a long and troubled history in schools, but new qualifications and renewed enthusiasm for its study could mean that the subject is turning a corner, finds Henry Hepburn

A child takes a belting from a teacher. The crime? To have spoken in the way that comes naturally - to have deployed Scots language in class.

Such scenes were common only a few decades ago, the uncomprehending pain of the victims vividly documented by novelists such as William McIlvanney. But Scots has made remarkable progress since then, with several landmarks reached in recent years.

In 2001, the UK government ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, conferring formal legitimacy on the language. The 2011 census results show that this was more than a sop to an obscure form of communication: some 1.5 million people in Scotland said they used and understood Scots.

This new enthusiasm has helped the language to get a foothold in the education system - 2014 marked the first time that a dedicated Scots language qualification was available in schools. The creation of four coordinators to help the language put down roots across the country, meanwhile, has underlined Education Scotland's commitment to Scots.

In April, the government agency published a major literacy and English review (bit.lyLiteracyScots) in which Scots features significantly. John Hodgart, a former English teacher and an expert on the language, tells TESS that the report contains "one of the most positive and supportive statements about Scots ever issued".

A sense of pride

Scots, then, has unprecedented status within the education system, which seems to be justified by the dramatic impact of the language when teachers - more often in primary schools - put it front and centre of their classrooms.

Just last month at the Scottish Education Awards, the early years class at St Bridget's Primary School in North Ayrshire was a runner-up in the literacy category for its work on Scottish culture and language. The children in Kilbirnie - a part of North Ayrshire with high deprivation - were surrounded by books, illustrations, labels, captions and letters in Scots as they learned about tartan, Scottish dancing and traditional poems and songs.

Their parents, meanwhile, were invited to take part in Scottish-themed events. One said that these had helped to forge a bond between her son and his grandfather; other parents talked of their children's increased confidence and curiosity. "The Scottish topic gives children a sense of pride in their local area and language," the judges noted.

Dr Simon Hall, one of the four Scots language coordinators, says: "In our experience, Scots can be a powerful motivator within the area of literacy, often for learners who are otherwise disengaged. Because of its potential links to the community, to the home and to prior learning, Scots can help to engage learners, awakening a new interest in literacy."

Hall, who is based in Orkney, says there is good teaching of Scots throughout Scotland and a growing community sharing ideas about how to bring it to life in schools. The Scots Language Blether group on Glow (the digital learning community for Scottish schools) has attracted more than 100 members since launching last year and 20 local authorities have expressed an interest or booked new training from Education Scotland.

A mental block seems to have been removed: educators, children and parents now see the value of Scots, with the shame once attached to its use in school becoming a relic of the past. Even with this historical barrier removed, however, the advance of Scots into classrooms is more of a trickle than a surge.

Patchy provision

Earlier this year TESS revealed that the new Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) award in the language was being offered in full by only three schools, with another three taking a piecemeal approach. Similarly, the Scottish studies qualification, which encourages a broad understanding of all things Scottish, languages included, was passed by only 159 students in 2014. In early 2011 the General Teaching Council for Scotland awarded "professional recognition" to 13 teachers with expertise in Scots, but TESS has discovered that no more such awards were made in the four years that followed.

There are two ways of looking at this. Hodgart, who is also secretary of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies' education committee, says the mere existence of the Scots language award is a "hugely historic step forward" for which the SQA deserves praise, and he believes that it will grow from its modest beginnings. Education Scotland, too, should be "lauded" for the priority it gave Scots in the recent literacy review, he says. Hall, meanwhile, sees first minister Nicola Sturgeon's determination to close the attainment gap in literacy as an opportunity, with Scots capable of providing an "important component" in that drive.

But author and teacher Matthew Fitt, who last year set up the Scots Hoose website ( to promote creativity and learning in the language, is less than upbeat. Although the census indicates that 200,000 pupils speak Scots, he says, the vast majority will explore it only when celebrating St Andrew's Day in November or Robert Burns' birthday in January - a point acknowledged in Education Scotland's literacy review.

"In spite of the welcome recent increase in support for Scots in education, actual provision for the majority of children remains more or less where it was when the SNP government took office in 2007," Fitt says. He notes that the Scottish government is talking up Scots and has implemented several initiatives to raise its profile in schools, but he says it is not fighting as hard for the language's place in education as it does for Gaelic.

"With the vast number of Scots-speaking pupils living in Scotland's poorer communities, will the first minister's pledge to raise attainment include those bairns and weans whose confidence and attainment grow when their teachers are better trained, resourced and motivated to support their Scots language needs?" he asks.

For now, Fitt says, "a handful of teachers are delivering on a shoestring the only meaningful education provision for an entire national language".

One of these is Rosie Daley (pictured, inset), an English and Scots teacher at East Lothian's Eyemouth High School, one of the three schools to have offered the Scots language award in its first year. Some 13 National 4 English students got the full award and another five achieved unit passes; next year Daley will run the award for about 70 pupils across National 4, National 5 and Higher.

"Because they were the first year to do it they felt very special and it really helped to boost their self-esteem and self-confidence - they're getting recognition for something they know a lot of already," she says, adding that some have been persuaded to delay leaving school partly as a result of their sense of achievement in gaining the award.

Some of the most enthusiastic learners of Scots at the 360-student school are Eastern European pupils and those from Berwick-upon-Tweed, just south of the border, who "would argue that they need it to be able to communicate effectively with their peers", she says.

Joining the dots

Education Scotland, too, insists that Scots classes do not have to be parochial - quite the opposite. A case study on Orkney's Stromness Academy shows how an exploration of a Scots song helped pupils to join the dots between songwriters such as Hamish Henderson and the anti-apartheid movement, which led to South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza performing Henderson's Freedom Come All Ye at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow last year.

Nevertheless, Daley believes there is an urgent need for Scots language CPD as she does not see it taking off in many other schools around the country: "You get a few enthusiasts and then other people who are contacting me to say, `This has been dumped on our timetable - can you help at all?' "

Education Scotland's review recognises the need for more training, particularly in secondaries where Scots is struggling to find traction in S1-3.

Even the optimistic Hodgart concludes on a sombre note: "It has to be accepted that there is still a great deal of indifference, ignorance and even hostility towards Scots, especially in secondary, and much remains to be done to overcome this."

Tips for teachers from Education Scotland's literacy and English review

n Consider whether the school looks at Scots language and texts only in the context of one-off events such as St Andrew's Day and Burns' Night celebrations.

n Integrate Scots language and literature into interdisciplinary projects.

n Examine whether incorporating a Scots award into the 1+2 programme would be appropriate - primary schools might explore offering Scots as their third language.

n Remember that the new Scottish Qualifications Authority Scots award can be delivered through various subjects, including English, languages, history, geography and music.

n Consider working with a Scots language ambassador. These include Man Booker Prize-nominated novelist James Robertson; Dundee Makar W N Herbert; singer Sheena Wellington; and Dr Kirsteen McCue, a University of Glasgow lecturer in Scottish literature.

n Have a Scots word of the week.

n Devise a specific Scots language and literature policy.

n Remember to keep spelling approaches consistent for written work in Scots, bearing in mind that there may be regional differences.

For more ideas, visit bit.lyLiteracyScots

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