Rabbie Burns shows why he is still the man for a' that

11th January 2008 at 00:00
In the week leading up to January 25, 2007, Learning and Teaching Scotland's new website for Robert Burns received more than 5,000 hits. Developed in partnership with the Robert Burns World Federation and West Lothian authority, it was the number one Burns site on Google that week, ahead of more than one million other such sites.

Among those thousands of surfers were teachers logging on to get a few last-minute pointers to a successful Burns Night, learning what must be served and what must be said. "There was a blip a few years ago when there was a little bit less of an interest in Burns, but we are seeing more and more schools using Burns within curriculum," says Margaret Skilling, schools convener at the Burns federation and ex-business studies teacher. "Burns is still popular with Scottish schools."

But while website resources are proving invaluable for covering everything any teacher needs to know about the poet and how to celebrate Burns Night, it is the link between studying his life and A Curriculum for Excellence that has made it such a winner.

"It fits in perfectly with the four capacities," says Catherine Hornby, depute head at Alloway Primary, in South Ayrshire, the first school to be affiliated to the Robert Burns World Federation. "Alloway was the birthplace of Burns. It shows how the activities the children can do together or independently fit with the curriculum."

One key element is allowing pupils to organise their own Burns Suppers, from planning the menu to designing the invitations. Last year, Alva Primary's P7s walked away with a top award for enterprise in the Forth Valley area for their Burns supper.

Alloway Primary, which is steeped in Burns heritage, also lets its P7s lead on all things to do with Burns. "We have a president and vice-president elected annually from P7 who will take an active role in a number of events. First, they represent the school in the wreath-laying ceremony at Burns Statue Square in Ayr on January 25," explains Mrs Hornby. "They also lead our Day of Burns - the final of our poetry competition involving classes from P3-7, where they introduce each finalist."

It all takes time to organise, and Alloway starts in the autumn, electing its president and vice-president, readying the P7s for the Burns supper and organising the Burns competitors throughout the term.

The winners of the school competition will go on to take part in the Burns Festivals, organised by the World Federation in April and May. LTS promotes these competitions on its website.

Ayr Academy, which Burns attended for two weeks before returning to help out on his father's farm, starts preparing for Burns Night and the festivals a little later than Alloway, in November.

As at the primary school, responsibility is put into the hands of the senior pupils, the two captains and four vice-captains who organise the supper with the help of John Bradley, the depute head and a keen piper. They liaise with the kitchens, organise the decorating of the hall, decide who will deliver the speeches and poems, design all the promotional materials and tickets and publicise the event.

The school also holds a Burns competition, with the winners going on to the festivals. Mrs Skilling, who taught at Ayr until she retired, often judges the finalists.

Academy head David Mathieson is proud of his school's track record at these events. "We've been very successful in the past, bringing home awards at all ages," he says. "Burns is important to us and is embedded in our curriculum, from music to PE and English.

"Our Burns supper is huge and all pupils can get involved, from serving the meal to performing. It is great for building confidence."

But Matthew Fitt, education and outreach officer for the award-winning Scots language project Itchy Coo, reckons schools should be preparing even earlier than the end of the winter term. "This may sound a bit unorthodox, but the most effective way for schools to prepare for Burns Day is to begin a programme of study in February, or at least in August as the school year begins," he says.

"The biggest challenge for pupils is that Burns's best poetry is not written in English but in Scots. In order to access, understand and appreciate Burns's writing, it makes sense for teachers to equip their pupils with a range of Scots language skills."

But whatever route teachers choose to study Burns, be it a supper or a poetry competition, they can be confident it fits well with A Curriculum for Excellence.


Born on January 25, 1759 in Alloway, Robert Burns was the eldest of seven children. His father, William Burness, was an unsuccessful farmer, and Burns was brought up working on the land. But his father made sure he received a good education. Burns worked in farming for many years, but eventually became an excise man and died aged 37.

The format of a Burns Night, celebrated on his birthday, has changed little since his death in 1796. At Burns Suppers, from Shanghai to Minneapolis, the evening usually begins with the Selkirk Grace, followed by the skirl of the pipes as the haggis, that "great chieftain o' the pudding race" is brought in ready to gush its entrails bright when stabbed at the appropriate moment of the address. Traditionally, this is followed by the "Immortal Memory" (an overview of Burns's life) - the toast to the lassies and the response to the laddies, and often the reading of his other poems, such as "Tam O'Shanter".


Successful learners

- literacy - poems, writing toasts, invitations, reciting poems

- communication - invitations, planning with staff, interacting with experts, working with the community, liaising with senior management

- Numeracy skills - managing a budget, calculating quantities required, selling tickets and so on.

- ICT - tickets, invitations, programmes, presentation, decorations, word processing, internet research, email

- Creative thinking - design of tickets, decorations and so on, planning the event and seeing the bigger picture, writing toasts

Confident individuals

- developing and communicating their beliefs and views - discussing how they feel about being Scottish, likes and dislikes, circle time

- behaving independently - taking responsibility for events, action and reaction, each responsible for a part of the event

- making informed decisions - be realistic and take budget into account when planning, don't be over-ambitious

Responsible citizens

- developing knowledge and understanding of the world and Scotland's place in it

- making informed choices and decisions - be responsible and consider others and the consequences of their decisions

- managing the finances and working with a budget

- learning and practising time management

- meeting deadlines

Effective contributors

- communicating in different ways and in different settings

- working in partnership - with the staff, community, experts, pupils in other classes

- working in teams - co-operating, valuing all members' contributions, allocating roles and responsibilities, assessing strengths and weaknesses, critical skills

- taking the initiative

- taking on leadership roles

- solving problems.

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