True stories and Fantasy Highers

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
When I was a young teacher of English in the 1970s, the Sunday Post regularly featured one of our S1 texts, A Pair of Jesus Boots, in an editorial column of head shaking over declining standards. The pathetic "adventures in crime" of its troubled young hero might move impressionable bairns to eager imitation. Crivvens, whatevir next?

Now a similarly lurid report has been published in the Sunday Times Scotland. It concerned a brief survey of S5-S6 Scottish literary texts which I undertook earlier this year, and misrepresented it so thoroughly under the headline "Cult books kick out classics" that it seems best to present the true findings here. Life is short, so for those who have time only for the bare facts of the case, they are these.

1. My survey was not of "pupils' reading habits" in general but only of Scottish literary texts used in S5-S6 English classrooms in 33 schools.

2. English literature continues as the norm (I would reckon that only 15-20 per cent of literature teaching involves Scottish texts, though their range is growing).

3. The reporters ignored the Scottish authors currently taught in classrooms (Grassic Gibbon, Crichton Smith, Mackay Brown, Spark, Gunn, Hogg, Stevenson) in favour of the texts chosen by 16 and 17-year-olds for reviews of personal reading.

4. A third of the 33 teachers surveyed detected no change at all in pupil choice of texts for their reviews over recent years, and about a third saw some widening of choice, with four teachers referring to contemporary Scottish fiction.

5. In a national sample of 4,000 RPR titles, only 12 per cent of pupils chose a Scottish author (with marked variations between regions and schools). In a separate survey of 1,500 of these, Irvine Welsh figured nowhere at all, whereas Neil Gunn, Muriel Spark, John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle and, yes, Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson did, among pupils' most popular choices.

These figures were available to the Sunday Times. As a headline, of course, "Scottish pupils prefer excellent writers" lacks the requisite raciness. Yet every Scottish teacher and parent must wonder why that newspaper (normally eager to advertise its Scottish credentials) is so keen to obscure the truth about the quality of literature taught in our schools.

My starting point was the survey of 44 schools by James Inglis in 1977-78, later published as The Reading and Teaching of Literature in the Higher English Year (1980). I had been struck by the small number of Scottish texts mentioned there. Although he refers to 11 Scottish novels being used, the titles of only some of these are given. In discussions with pupils, work by D H Lawrence, Graham Greene or George Orwell is preferred to Scottish texts. Have matters changed in 20 years?

I wanted to find out: the range of Scottish texts currently in use; which Scottish material teachers would like to use in S5-S6; which features of particular Scottish texts marked them as suitable for upper school study; how often pupils chose Scottish texts for their reviews of personal reading or dissertations, and which authors they favoured, and why; what teachers' attitudes were to the use of Scots language in texts, and what pupils' attitudes were generally to Scottish language and culture.

Overall, there appears to have been much development in the teaching of Scottish literature, much of it "assessment led" by set texts but some of it beginning to indicate the enthusiasms of a new generation of teachers. The second question asked ("Which Scottish materials would you like to see used in S5-S6?") revealed both a wide and an individualistic sense of what would be worth teaching.

Thirty-one prose writers, 14 poets and 11 dramatists were cited, and many were selected only by one or two correspondents each. Such individual autonomy is a prized feature of the Scottish teaching of English, of course, and one of the reasons for the resentment "set texts" aroused in the revised Higher English arrangements of 1989.

At this point, enter a few references to Irvine Welsh and Ian Banks. The rest, as the tabloids say, is history. Or in the case of the Sunday Times, almost total fantasy.

Copies of the survey are available from the Department of Language and Literature, St Andrew's College, Bearsden, Glasgow G61 4QA. Dr James McGonigal is head of language and literature at the college.

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