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Elphinstone Kist   Background and Contexts

Scots in the Secondary School     by: Johnston, David

Two episodes from contemporary Scottish novels testify to the difficulties many Scots speaking youngsters have experienced in their negotiations with the world of school.

In Gordon Williams's book, 'From Scenes Like These', the central character Dunky Logan reflects on the observation that schools teach 'proper English' to prevent pupils from being 'guttersnipes' all their life.

"Was it being a guttersnipe to talk your own country's language? It would be healthier if folk spoke one way. Sometimes you'd hear them say 'eight' and sometimes 'eicht', sometimes 'farm' and sometimes 'ferm'…You see, if school was any use it would teach you things like that, not just jump on you for not talking like a Kelvinside nancy boy."

And in William McIlvanney's novel, 'Docherty', the eponymous hero's youngest son, Conn, is struck violently on the ear by the head teacher for speaking Scots. An incident 'significant beyond itself', it helps to consolidate Conn's sense of 'the irrelevance of school, its denial of the worth of his father and his family, the falsity of its judgments, the rarified atmosphere of its terminology.'

It might be tempting to consign these incidents to the unfortunate consequences of the unenlightened linguistic thinking of a bygone era; tempting, too, to make claims about the more inclusive nature of modern education. But, for many Scottish children, making the linguistic transition between home and school still creates difficulties, with many being effectively told that their home language is at best inappropriate, at worst, inadequate. There still exists, for many therefore - in the reality of a modern, devolved Scotland - a marked sense of confusion and alienation emerging as a direct consequence of the lack of consonance between the language used at home and that which is required at school.

Why should this be? Enshrined in the 5-14 National Curricular Guidelines for English Language, for example, are numerous statements urging teachers, for example, to 'build on the diversity of culture and language in their schools by: fostering respect for and interest in each pupil's mother tongue and its literature …' (p59) Indeed, in 'Specific Issues in English Language Teaching' - under a sub-heading, 'Scottish Culture' - it is asserted that 'The first tasks of schools are therefore to enable pupils to be confident and creative in this language (the language children bring to school) and to begin to develop the notion of language diversity…' (P67)

In the Revised Arrangements for Standard Grade English, too, it is stated that English courses should make pupils 'aware of the main ways in which language works in their lives' and of 'the cultural diversity in Scotland and of the contribution of minority cultures.' It is, moreover, important that pupils should 'have some experience of the work of Scottish writers.'

And as pupils progress into fifth and sixth years, the emphasis on Scottish texts becomes more prescriptive: Scots writers feature heavily in the Set text component of the Revised Higher; pupils have to study a compulsory Scottish text for the Critical Essay component of the Higher Still course in English.

This is far from the position of numerous official education reports, dating back even to as recently as 1946, where Scots has consistently been denigrated and devalued. One example of the negative attitudes that have been pervasive throughout educational history is the 1946 Advisory Council's Report on Primary Education which states that Scots 'is not the language of "educated" people anywhere, and could not be described as a suitable medium of education or culture.' But despite the relatively enlightened linguistic views of those more recently responsible for steering Scottish education, public attitudes have not tended to develop apace.

Powerful though the education authorities in Scotland have become, they have been unable to determine what has become recognised as the main barrier to wider acceptance of Scots - social perceptions of the language's inferiority. Scots - like other non-standard varieties - has traditionally not enjoyed the status and prestige of the standard language, with its elaborated and codified structures. Popular views, indeed, have tended to typecast Scots as a substandard version of English, ungrammatical, associated with slovenly speech and disrespectful attitudes. The relatively recent case of the defendant who was found in contempt of court for responding to the judge using the word 'aye' demonstrates neatly widespread public perception of Scots as a second class linguistic citizen.

It is not surprising, therefore, that even teachers broadly sympathetic to matters of national, cultural and linguistic interest find it hard to reconcile their genuine desire to support and foster the language children bring to school from home, with their responsibility to raise attainment and ensure that no pupil is disadvantaged in post-school life by being unable to read or write Standard English effectively. In a period of increased accountability, where league tables and exam statistics loom large in most educational managers' agendae, perhaps it is inevitable that perceived minority interests do not receive the prominent attention that many Scots supporters would wish.

So why should Scots play a more prominent part in secondary school curricula?

The first argument resides in the acknowledgement of the links between language and both thinking and learning. One of the more powerful and persuasive theories of learning currently available promotes the belief that learning is best achieved when novice learners are able to build on what they already know and have experienced, through interaction with significant others. Good teaching, it is further believed, has to support the modification and expansion of children's existing understanding in the light of new experiences, effectively building bridges or mediating between what is already known and what is to be learnt. Central to this process, it is argued, is discussion and sharing. In order to make the new learning their own and assimilate the new knowledge to the old, learners have to be offered opportunities to work on the new learning on their own terms. This can be achieved most successfully as a collaborative enterprise. Small group discussion activities allow knowledge to be built interactively through the give and take of talking and listening, so that, together, learners can go beyond the conceptual understandings that they would have been capable of individually.

The point is that for this to happen most powerfully, learners have to construct their understandings using the language that comes most naturally to them. Children whose first language is Scots will benefit most from being encouraged to explore and share their understanding in Scots. Being forced to attempt more standard spoken discourse will only prevent many native speakers from entering fully into the discussion and learning situation and from achieving ownership, through dialogue, of the more abstract concepts typical of written and spoken discourse in most subject areas.

Demonstrating new understandings in writing is a separate issue. Choosing appropriate language and organisational structures to accommodate particular genre demands can be supported by teachers after discussion has enabled learners to sort out what they have learned in their own heads. Direct teaching, modelling, reading and discussing models of similar writing and using an effective writing process are all acknowledged ways of scaffolding youngsters' writing. The final written product, however, will benefit immensely from having emerged from the context of thorough talking and sharing. As genres are social constructs, it is certainly feasible that appropriateness in terms of register will, at some time in the future, be capable of incorporating written Scots. We are, however, nowhere near this stage yet, but the experience of the Aberdeen University student who succeeded, despite considerable difficulty, in securing permission to write his finals in Scots is an encouraging precedent, demonstrating that Scots can be a vehicle for intelligent written communication and that arguments against it have no basis in linguistic terms but are merely grounded in social prejudice.

The social constructivist model of learning outlined above gives both Scots and Standard English proper status in the classroom and reflects a belief that secondary teachers who are genuinely concerned to maximise the potential of all youngsters in their charge should foster both. A literate population should be able to communicate in a lively, sensitive, intelligent and informed way using a wide range of different spoken and written formats. True, those who have mastery over written Standard English may have an advantage in many working contexts where the situation demands a standard response, but this should not be at the expense of encouraging those, whose first language is Scots. The 'both/and' approach is surely more potentially effective than the 'either/or'.

Indeed, there are many contexts across the curriculum where writing in Scots would positively enrich the learning experience for many youngsters. In History, for example - particularly in the context of World War 1 - a Scots dimension could be encouraged where wartime reminiscences of frontline veterans could be created through pupils writing diary entries or autobiographical accounts in Scots. Letters could be written in Scots from soldiers in the trenches to loved ones back home. Propaganda posters could be given a Scots flavour. In Geography, too, the theme of "Weather" could benefit hugely from a particularly Scots slant, with a weather forecast being written and presented in Scots. Scottish politics, moreover, which is studied in Modern Studies, could be enhanced with persuasive texts being written and presented as a Scots version of a Party Political Broadcast. With imagination and the will and commitment to do so, teachers could support deep, personalised and long-lasting learning in youngsters in a variety of curricular contexts, by integrating opportunities to actively encourage Scots as an appropriate medium of written communication.

One of the benefits of such an approach would be to give Scots an educational credibility in the eyes of the learners themselves. This might, moreover, allow schools to forge much closer links with home and community experiences, enabling youngsters to see that school is respectful of the full range of different background factors that contribute to educational success. Indeed, a major consequence of this might be to draw in to the educational arena youngsters who might otherwise form the conclusion that school literacy is totally divorced from the literacy of their home experiences. By actually validating learners' experiences and those of their family, community and culture, schools that give Scots a higher priority across the curriculum might discover hitherto untapped potential in pupils, who would see that education is not only about them and people like them, but also for them. The motivating effects of such a realisation would surely be worth striving for.

For, clearly, to be effective learners the affective side has to be considered equally with the cognitive. How children feel about themselves as learners is acknowledged to be crucial to their performance as learners. Youngsters are more likely to invest time, energy in effort in learning contexts where their achievements are likely to be acknowledged and viewed positively. Teachers are only too aware that in order to nurture self-confident youngsters with positive attitudes, children need regular experiences of success in an environment where there are high expectations of success, where appropriate scaffolding and support are offered by teachers who provide inspiring, worthwhile and purposeful experiences and are genuine in their desire to help all children to succeed. Picking children up on their accent or pronunciation or on perceived grammatical infelicities - the oral equivalent of the red pen treatment! - is not a strategy likely to develop confidence or self-esteem. Effective teachers rightly see their role as that of enabler and guide, rather than critic or judge. Encouraging vivid, intelligent and imaginative communication has been found by many to be more successful than insisting on dubious concepts of correctness or propriety. Scotland is a diverse country with a rich variety of language forms. Setting up barriers between native users of Scots and expected classroom language serves no-one well - neither teachers, nor pupils.

Truly inclusive classrooms will encourage Scots alongside Standard Scottish English and Standard English, and acknowledge the validity and value of each. Perhaps in fifty years time Scottish fictional writing will reflect a different reality from that illustrated by McIlvanney and Williams; a reality where Scots speakers have earned their place in education and are viewed as conducting themselves in a totally appropriate manner. There is much work still to be done.


McIlvanney, W (1975) Docherty. London: George Allen and Unwin.

SOED (1991) Curriculum and Assessment in Scotland: National Guidelines, English Language 5-14.

SEB (1987) Scottish Certificate of Examination. Standard Grade. Revised Arrangements in English.

Williams, G (1968) From Scenes Like These. London: Billings and Sons Ltd.

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