Hayden Murphy reviews the highly successful Writers in Schools scheme, which has a new man at its helm.
This month, one of the best kept secrets in Scottish education is handed over from the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) to Book Trust Scotland. Writers, teachers and organisations using the Writers in Schools and Writers in Public schemes will now have one man dealing with the paperwork, including the cheques.
In 1971 the first action of the incoming SAC literature director, Trevor Royle, was to set up a Writers in Schools scheme in association with the then Scottish Education Department and local education authorities. It loosely copied a London-based system which Royle remembers as "a literary cabal run for an even more selective cabal of English writers".
Two years later he produced a register of writers prepared to visit, read and speak about their work in secondary schools across Scotland. A fee of Pounds 20 was to be paid to the writer, this was shared between SAC and the appropriate education authority. There were 126 visits in the first year by 30 authors. When Royle resigned in 1979 there had been 384 visits by 47 writers in 197879 and the fee had risen to Pounds 30.
His successor, Walter Cairns, enthusiastically extended the service to permit writers to be booked for Writers in Public sessions. This allows writers' groups, libraries and art centres to benefit. Shonagh Irvine, current SAC literature officer, further developed it for primary and nursery schools. She also introduced into the register of "non-fiction writers, traditional storytellers and authorillustrators". In this format it supported nearly 2,000 visits in 1996. The fee is now Pounds 80. There are 276 listed participants in the 1997 register.
The fact that even now, comparatively few organisations are aware of its existence is due to a combination of educational cutbacks and reorganisation and an intimidating amount of paperwork for an SAC literary department which also deals with grants and bursaries, and such diverse activities as the now annual Edinburgh Book Festival and the awarding of literary prizes.
So, 25 years after its instigation, SAC has "devolved responsibility for managing the schemes, producing future Writers' Registers, and budgeting to the Book Trust". In January 1997 the BTS "created the position of education officer to both enlarge and yet condense the communication and administrative duties into one concentrated area".
Dallas-born Robert Clyde took over this week. Clyde came to Scotland in 1986 "researching Scottish history". The 33-year-old married a Scot, then worked in Scottish publishing. He sees the new job as "a challenge to work upon the evident success of the schemes so far".
Though "no immediate change" is planned, he does "foresee considerable benefit in the one-person remit". His presence will "create a more accessible response to applications for visits and related inquiries". He will increase the number of applications accepted over a year.
Towards this end he has already mailed nearly 7,000 application forms to groups and organisations, including prisons. Among his practical notes is the advice that "organisations are requested to direct the visitor out of the venue at the end of the day".
He intends to "actively pursue" sponsorship and is interested in the W H Smith scheme where writers visiting primary schools are recommended to visit over a term, rather than just have one-off encounters.
Another target for change is the "devolving" of choice to Writers in Residency for visitors to their area. This has been successfully done in Dumfries and Galloway where poet W N Herbert ("Prof Bill"), in close liaison with regional arts administrator Jenny Wilson, created a series of "mini-festivals" which, apart from their social success, led to the compiling of anthologies of local writing.
Clyde sees accessibility as the major benefit of his new role. "I can be involved in all aspects of visits," he says. "This allows a change in approach and emphasis. Organisation will be more focused. The register will go on to the Internet and I will be available to instantly access change. And, if necessary, respond immediately to criticism or complaints."
One wonders how this amiable American would have dealt with the Borders school which suggested the visitor "bring sandwiches". Or the rector in Wick who introduced his Irish guest with "appropriate Irish jokes" to his morning assembly. Or the Higher pupils in an east Edinburgh school who threw coins at, or for, the poet trapped in their gymnasium.
Further information from Robert Clyde, education officer, Book Trust Scotland, Scottish Book Centre, 137 Dundee Street, Edinburgh EH11 1BG, tel: 0131 229 3633