This post can also be read at Raymond Soltysek’s blog, http://raymondsoltysek.wordpress.com/
The other day, one of my PGDE students came up to me and pulled a couple of sheets of paper from her bag. “Raymond,” she said, “I wanted to show you this. We studied this story at Higher when I was at school.”
It was a copy of a story of mine, “Teuchter Dancing when the Lights Go Out”. I know that some teachers use “The Practicality of Magnolia”, but I was surprised by her teacher’s choice because the story contains more than a few swear words and a brief but explicit sex scene. How brave of him, I thought, and how original.
Education Scotland have published their Scottish set texts list for Higher and National 5 qualifications, and she got me thinking. There has been a vociferous campaign to make the study of Scottish literature compulsory in schools; there is a powerful lobby that says that Scottish schoolchildren should know about Scottish writers. And, in essence, I agree. However, sections of that lobby have also successfully pushed an agenda that prescribes who those Scottish writers schoolchildren study should be, presumably on the grounds that if there is no prescription, there will be no compliance. At that point, we part company.
The list itself is, I feel, a disappointment. It is not that I object to any particular text or writer; it is just that it is a tired rehash of the same old same old that seems to take more account of what texts English departments might have in their store cupboards than what actually might be relevant to pupils today who are studying in the context of the breadth of Curriculum for Excellence. I am particularly depressed by the drama list. Bold Girls may be written by a Scottish writer, but it is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles; hugely contemporary, n’est pas? Always a fairly insubstantial text, it gained currency by being the only option accessible to pupils who might struggle at Higher. Sailmaker by Alan Spence is set in the Glasgow fifty years ago and centres on a boy’s relationship with a father who works in the long gone shipyards; I used it with Standard Grade General classes in the 1980s. Tally’s Blood – a play I admit I don’t know – was written in the 1990s; The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was written in the 1970s; Men Should Weep in the 1940s; and The Slab Boys, set in a 1950s carpet factory in a town that hasn’t seen carpet manufacturing for decades, was written in the late 1970s, and is another that has miles of groaning shelves dedicated to it.
Now I am not criticising these plays – they all have merit – but in a golden age of Scottish Theatre, why is there not one play that has been written in the 21st century? Why have those who have constructed this list ignored David Greig, David Harrower or Gregory Burke? Why are school students studying the Irish troubles when Black Watch might actually connect with what they see on television every day? Where are the really big issues about Scottish history, nationalism and identity that could have been explored through the utterly magnificent Duninsane? It is as if the National Theatre of Scotland never happened, as if it has no relevance to “Scottish literature”.
However, the other genres are little better, I feel. Of all the prose texts, only two were written in the 21st century. And while Anne Donovan, Iain Crichton Smith and Norman MacCaig are fine short story writers, there are many, many others who are ignored. Where is Suhayl Saadi or Linda Cracknell? Where are Scottish adoptees like Bernard MacLaverty or Leila Abouela, both Scottish enough to have won a host of Scotland’s major literary awards? Where is the opportunity to pick up occasional brilliances like Beatrice Colin’s “Tangerines” or Michel Faber’s “Fish” – or, dare I say it, “The Practicality of Magnolia”. By prescribing these authors, the range and cultural diversity of Scottish writing is sidelined: there will be no other brave, original choices made, because “the list” will dominate. I cannot understand why Education Scotland didn’t simply trawl through the exam papers of students who write on a wide range of Scottish stories every year and publish a list of a hundred or so that seem to work. It’s tempting to think, looking at the list, that one of the major driving factors was saving money – what do schools already have on the shelf so we don’t have to listen to them asking for funding for new books – but that is hardly relevant for short stories, many of which are freely available online or cheaply available through the photocopier.
As for the novels, I love The Trick is to Keep Breathing, although it is again 23 years old, and James Robertson is a brilliant writer. Sunset Song is for some a classic, for others (like me) a wearisome trudge; again, where is the opportunity to look at the history of rural Scotland through a range of fantastic alternatives, such as Gunn’s The Silver Darlings or Alex Benzies’ The Year’s Midnight? I have yet to hear any teacher I know say a good word about the choice of Kidnapped for the list, including fans of R.L. Stevenson. The Cone Gatherers is a safe choice yet again: I can’t say much against it given that I helped create resources for it ten years ago that are still regularly used in schools, so I may get some in-service work out of it – but would I have been too unhappy to see a novel set 70 years ago ditched for the very best of A.L. Kennedy? I really don’t think so. Scottish literature we want our schoolchildren to read – and A.L. Kennedy isn’t on the list.
As for the poets, thankfully 5 out of the 8 are still alive. Once more, though, where is the imagination? I use a W.N. Herbert poem, Temporal Ode, with Higher pupils because I don’t think any other teacher in Scotland uses it, and because it’s brilliant. So once more, where is the encouragement to introduce Scottish kids to a smorgasbord of Graham Fulton, Jim Carruth, Liz Niven, Gerrie Loose, Gerry Cambridge, Roddy Gorman, Robert Jamieson, Alan Riach, Donny O’Rourke, David Kinloch, Kathleen Jamie, Stuart A. Paterson, Roddy Lumsden, Gerrie Fellows, Bill Herbert, Dilys Rose, Brian McCabe or John Burnside. Come on, John Burnside, for heaven’s sake!
It’s not really a question of who is on and who is not on the list, though; it’s a question of how having a list at all will direct the focus of teachers onto a narrower and narrower range of what pupils will come to see as “Scottish”. We saw it last time texts were prescribed for the Revised Higher, which left us chained to Bold Girls and the poetry of Norman MacCaig. In those days, pupils had to study a set author. For MacCaig, the list consisted of about 13 poems. Assessment consisted of either a context question – a whole poem or extract on which about 16 marks’ worth of questions were based, with the remaining 9 marks assigned to a general question asking about the author’s work as a whole – or an essay, which had to take account of at least two and usually more poems from the list.
When set texts were dropped, though, most schools found themselves with copies of the poems and units of study (many published by my old colleagues at Jordanhill), and so they continued studying MacCaig’s poetry. However, they no longer spent time studying 13 poems; instead, they trimmed that to three, or two, or even only one, and in the mid-2000s, the majority of schoolchildren sitting Higher answered a question using only “Assisi”, “Brooklyn Cop” or “Visiting Hour”. It got so bad, the Examiners had to change the nature of the paper to make it difficult to answer using the poems.
But teachers missed the whole point. In the set text days, studying one poem was never enough to get more than 15 or 16 marks out of 25, since in both forms, the examination paper demanded knowledge of more than one poem. But because it had been prescribed, because it had been given the exam board’s blessing, “Assisi” in particular became the default poem of choice for many teachers in the mistaken knowledge that such blessing meant it was adequately rigorous to get the full range of marks; I spoke to an examiner once who said that many of his colleagues called it “That fucking dwarf poem”. It was that seal of approval that damned a generation of Scottish teenagers to studying what is a short, lightweight poem – and I knew of some schools which studied only that poem – when they could and should have been swimming in a sea of the work of many varied, demanding, fulfilling Scottish poets. And history will repeat itself.
The thing is that the Scottish curriculum has always demanded the study of Scottish literature; it is in every guideline and arrangements document you can find. The issue, then, is oversight in schools, and that is quite easily remedied. Yes, pupils at National 5 and Higher should answer a question on a Scottish text; but why not any Scottish text, or, at least, one from a very, very long list of suggested Scottish texts. Then, teachers can talk about Scottish literature and can read widely around it: they can have professional discussions about the appropriateness of Scottish texts for the curriculum in their schools. And then, a department head can oversee the study of those Scottish texts in the classrooms of their teachers. The knock on effect that would have on interest in Scottish literature – and by implication, on publishing – could be enormous.
Ah, but would they do it? Well, if students have to fill out a box on the front of their exam paper that says “The Scottish text I have used in my examination paper is ……………… “ you can damned well be sure that teachers will train them to fill it out right. They already make sure candidates don’t answer on two texts from the same genre, and train them to within an inch of their lives on all sorts of aspects of the exam, some of them quite bizarre (“My teacher says I’ll fail my essay if I don’t have a conclusion”, many pupils tell me); so why on earth couldn’t they make it crystal clear to pupils that they must make sure they answer a question on text A, B or C because those are the Scottish texts they studied this year?
I’m afraid. I’m afraid that in a sincere attempt to ensure that teachers do study Scottish literature, Scottish literature has in fact been done a great disservice. No teacher will ever do “Teuchter Dancing when the Lights Go Out” again, and although that sounds as if I’m bemoaning my own fate, what disturbs me more is that it will be the fate of the majority of Scottish writers, many of them much more accomplished than me, because they have not made that arbitrary list of the chosen few.
The Full List
|Drama:Bold Girls by Rona Munro
Sailmaker by Alan Spence
Tally’s Blood by Ann Marie di Mambro
|Drama:The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil by John McGrath
Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Steward
The Slab Boys by John Byrne
|Prose:Short stories (a selection of) by Iain Crichton Smith
Hieroglyphics and Other Stories by Anne Donovan
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
|Prose:Short stories (a selection of) by Iain Crichton Smith
Short stories (a selection of) by George Mackay Brown
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway
|Poetry:Carol Ann Duffy, Edwin Morgan, Norman MacCaig, Jackie Kay
||Poetry:Carol Ann Duffy, Robert Burns, Don Paterson, Liz Lochhead, Sorley MacLean (in English)