The impasse between Michael Russell, the Scottish Education Secretary, and the teachers' unions over the inclusion of a mandatory question on Scottish literature in the Higher English exam is an extraordinary example of a breakdown in communication.
This is particularly alarming since clear and effective use of language is a core professional skill of all those involved.
Teachers and the Scottish Government agree children should be taught Scottish literature as part of their English course. The disagreement is about whether a compulsory question on a Scots text has the effect of broadening or narrowing the literary understanding of pupils sitting Higher English. The argument will be further inflamed today with the intervention of Neil Shaw, president of the School Leaders' Scotland union and headteacher of Boclair Academy in Bearsden. He agrees with the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association that a compulsory question on Scottish literature will result in teaching to the test, thus narrowing pupils' range of reading.
Loading article content
Such wide-ranging concern on the part of teachers must be taken seriously. But it is equally important to examine the basis on which Scottish literature is to be made a mandatory element in the Higher English course. There is no disagreement with the basic premise that students in Scottish schools should have some knowledge of the literature of their country. Mr Shaw himself says: "It is crucial to expose pupils to a variety of Scottish literature as they are growing up." His concern is that a compulsory question will impose restrictions on teachers which would undermine the principles of the Curriculum for Excellence which give teachers more freedom and flexibility.
It is the case that pupils will learn best when teachers can tailor lessons to their abilities and interests. Unless the compulsory questions are constructed particularly narrowly, it is difficult to see teachers being unable to do this from the full canon of Scottish literature. For many pupils, the discovery that texts in Scots are regarded as literature is an eye-opening experience that leads to further reading.
It is difficult to see how the problem of teaching to the test and the regrettable phenomenon of pupils expecting to learn answers they can reproduce without original thought would apply more to Scots texts than English ones.
It may be that teachers are reluctant to engage with less familiar texts. Teachers largely agree that Scottish literature is an essential part of the curriculum. It is important to recognise, however, that without the need to study at least one text for an external exam some pupils will miss out on Scottish literature completely. That is unacceptable.