Time to put pen to paper

25th July 2003 at 01:00
I ONCE stole mercury from a chemistry lab. A thermometer had broken, and our bench was alive with quicksilver that ran in glittering globules and rested in acid-burnt pits.

With bare a moment until Mr Argon would check us, I whipped the top off my gold Parker pen and coaxed a train of beads to climb in, stoppering it with a fold of filter paper. Home it would go to be toyed with at leisure.

Now in 1963 none of us was aware of mercury as poison. Dentists mixing amalgams were still gaily using it. And if indeed it is the semen of Shiva, the creative power of the god of impermanence, naebody kent that up Schoolhill. Naebody, alas, but me.

Next day Mr Mott asked us to write a composition, as practice for Higher English. The range of topics was properly pre-Beatles: "A Day in the Hills"; "Britain's Role in a Developing World"; "The Unexpected". I set off for Lochnagar, and had just unscrewed the top of my Parker fountain pen.

With head in clouds I put nib to paper.

The nib did the splits, the splits went spongy: the pen of a dux was a peely-wally flux. For Mercury, that speedy messenger, is a solvent for gold.

This couldn't, of course, happen today. We don't have composition in Higher English. And really I should stop there, out of respect, because the joys of recalling, reshaping, and creating meaning are not for our pupils.

For the first time ever, and perhaps as the only country in the world so to do, we no longer award marks for the ability to write.

Nothing that the pupil brings of their own is to be valued. Higher English comprises reactive tasks only: close reading and critical essays. I say "we", when of course I mean the Scottish Qualifications Authority, at the behest of whichever impermanent minister of education was fiddling with the portfolio at the time (six in six years).

The first result of this disastrous SQA change will become obvious in August. The pass mark for Higher English is going to be dropped drastically: figures between 45 per cent and 39 per cent are alleged.

Higher English without the assessment of writing will turn out to be Coleridge without his Mariner, Hamlet deprinced. The second will be the usual glosses and exculpations from the SQA.

I hope the third result will be a petition to the Scottish Parliament. If you believe in writing, in the vitality and centrality of accurate, imaginative writing, look on the quicksilver internet and please consider signing it.

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