I still have vivid memories of my encounters with classic literature at school: of Wilfred Owen’s unflinching account of a mustard gas attack, of Macbeth’s opaque language slowly unfurling into resonant meaning and of the oppressive sense of impending tragedy in Jude the Obscure.
What is striking now, when reading reports on the English courses Scotland’s pupils took in 2016-17, is how many texts popular in my day – a quarter of a century ago – continue to dominate classrooms today: Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, 1984, Of Mice and Men and Sunset Song, to name a few. Despite their classic status, there is a concern that the range of literature studied at school has atrophied and become less relevant to young people.
Raymond Soltysek, national coordinator of the Scottish Association of the Teaching of English (SATE), says the impact of literature studied at school became clear when he gathered data showing that most PGDE English students’ favourite poems were ones they had studied in formal education.
He is frustrated, therefore, to see that the poetry and short prose – where the cost of resources is not as much of an issue as for novels or drama – on offer is often narrow and predictable. “Why does every pupil in Scotland still do A Hanging, A Case of Murder, The Highwayman, The Landlady or even Timothy-bloody-Winters?” he asks.
Soltysek believes that teachers should share their own tastes with pupils – “The excitement of finding a new poem or great short story should be immediately transferred into the classroom in new, fresh lessons” – but finds that, in practice, they often “self-prescribe a few ‘classics’”.
There are some texts studied year after year that English teachers feel are a long way from being classics.
Gordon Smith, who is also the EIS teaching union’s local secretary in North Ayrshire, says: “Sometimes SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) flies a kite, which is why there’s a pile of Bold Girls [a 1991 play by Rona Munro] in every Scottish secondary. Not great literature, but it’s popular…because it’s easier than Shakespeare.”
While the financial cost of introducing a new text was cited repeatedly, another reason for not mixing things up is the risk of dragging down pupils’ marks in crucial exam years.
Gordon Cairns, an English teacher in the west of Scotland and a Tes Scotland columnist, says: “I think teachers know that certain books work with pupils and with the SQA, with identifiable themes and clear characters. You don’t know how well a book will go down until you teach it. In an exam year, you don’t have time to make a mistake.”
Alan Gillespie, principal teacher of English at Fernhill School in Glasgow, says finance and time are the main barriers to new texts, although some have “broken through”, such as Skellig and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
“There’s already a terrific amount of resources and teaching materials available for classic texts,” he says. “If we teach something relatively new, the chances are that a class teacher would have to develop a whole new scheme of work – this takes precious time that we don’t often have. But if time and money were no object, I’d love to teach some new Scottish drama in class – Dunsinane or Black Watch, perhaps.”
Gillespie also stresses that adults should remember that their jaded view of classics might not match the reaction of teenagers.
“Kids love To Kill a Mockingbird, An Inspector Calls and Animal Farm…just because I may have taught them before doesn’t mean they are old-fashioned,” he says. “They are new to the pupils. They haven’t met Boo or Lenny or Snowball before. These characters have a quality that is pretty difficult to beat – pupils find them riveting.”
The SQA said it is trying to encourage teachers to mix up their offerings more often, although Robert Quinn – head of English, language, business and core skills – says the approach is “evolution not revolution”. At National 5 and Higher, there is “less prescription” from SQA than for equivalent qualifications in the rest of the UK, he adds, and it is “starting to see more autonomy” in the selections made by schools.
The most significant change by SQA in recent times has been effectively to remove set texts at Advanced Higher, which Quinn says may be one factor in its increasing popularity (see graphic, page 18). He adds that there may be talk of “an Xbox generation” drifting away from books, yet he is seeing pupils increasingly drawn towards “sophisticated and complex” texts.
Emma Bradshaw, SQA qualifications manager for English and media, says that more schools are now following a “university-style” type of tutorial-based teaching at Advanced Higher, with teachers “really focused on personalisation and choice”.
She has been encouraged by increasing interest in modern authors such as Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Anne Tyler and Kazuo Ishiguro. A Scottish set-text element at National 5 and Higher, meanwhile, has coincided with more pupils studying James Robertson’s 2006 novel The Testament of Gideon Mack.
Some, however, feel the wrong approach is taken to Scottish texts. Matthew Fitt, a teacher and writer who has just finished translating Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone into Scots, says: “Instead of imposing set Scottish texts, as was done a few years back, I think Scottish books should have been promoted to schools in far more exciting and innovative ways.”
He fears that “staid texts” remain in schools because some “overworked, underpaid” teachers “naturally take paths of least resistance”. Or, put another way, if they have taught a book “so many times they could literally teach it blindfold, hanging from the chandeliers with a firecracker inserted in a biblical position, then they stick with it till Doomsday”.
Calcifying book lists are not restricted to secondary schools. Edinburgh primary teacher and blogger Susannah Jeffries points to research for The Power of Reading, a literacy project in England, which found many teachers were not expanding their knowledge of children’s literature, with a “significant effect on their practice”. Almost half in a survey named Roald Dahl as their favourite children’s author and had recently read one of his books to their class.
Jeffries says: “Now I love Roald Dahl as much as anyone – and my own kids love him, too – but I feel a real responsibility to try and bring the work of new, living authors into classrooms as much as possible.”