Labour should focus its criticism on literacy levels, rather than on the teaching of Scotland’s history and culture, says AILEEN COLLERAN


Although I can understand the obvious temptation to immediately accuse the SNP government of politicising the curriculum by announcing that Scottish studies should be introduced into our schools, aren’t we falling into their trap by immediately denouncing this ?

To say that an increased emphasis on Scottish literature and history will automatically brainwash young people into voting SNP is to imply that environmental education automatically creates a generation of green voters. If environmental education were 100 percent effective then I wouldn’t be inundated with complaints about litter problems in streets adjacent to secondary schools; it’s as if a hormonal switch is thrown on leaving primary school and all those keen eco-schoolers from P7 discover takeaways in first year and the joys of scattering polystyrene containers around the neighbourhood.

Although it’s a bit historical by now, reflecting on my own educational experience, I do recognise that I didn’t have a structured introduction to Scottish literature, history and culture. Being an avid reader , I managed to fill in the gaps myself, but what is scary is how much my educational experience depended on the whims and interests of individual teachers.

The English department of my secondary school was in thrall to the kitchen sink drama and literature of the ’60s – so Barry Hines, Alan Sillitoe et al featured large, coupled with the obligatory Shakespeare (and who on earth thinks “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a good introduction for giggly teens to the Bard?).

It took until fifth year for a teacher to introduce us to Burns and the rich canon of Scots literature. He was an American on a teacher exchange.

I do remember a school trip to the Wallace monument during primary school but it was all a bit random and not part of the curriculum. We didn’t “get” Scottish history in primary (the Romans and dinosaurs was pretty much it). In secondary it was mostly the Romans (again) then swiftly on to the industrial revolution and the events leading up to World War One. Anything after that was Modern Studies.

The best form of education is to empower children and young people to discover their own truths and understanding. That’s why literacy is so important. Reading off the curriculum and not being overly guided by teachers and adults in terms of what they “should” read or think is the most powerful and significant educational tool we can give to the next generation.

I’m not overly concerned about the implications of introducing elements of “Scottish” culture into the curriculum; what’s far more important is implementing strategies to address literacy levels in children and adults, protecting and developing our public libraries and improving access to literature and information. That’s far more important than allowing us to be drawn on to the campaigning ground of “we’re more Scottish than you”. Because that’s where the SNP would dearly love us to fight.

Aileen Colleran is the sole Labour councillor in the four-member ward of Partick West in Glasgow, and a former librarian. Follow Aileen on Twitter at @ColleranAileen.

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25 thoughts on “The case for ‘Scottish Studies’

  1. Gosh, I really find it an odd mindset that thinks everything done by the SNP is either part of some twisted plot to ‘brainwash’ or to pick a fight with labour. Perhaps the motivation is simply to improve things? I think it’s great that students will finally get some Scottish history and culture – surely its absence was a far more peculiar situation. I have been embarrassed many times when chatting to American or European friends who know far more about the Scottish enlightenment, for example, than I do. Rather than being a parochial concern, having your feet firmly grounded helps you look out on the world.

    Labour would do better if they dropped this ugly cynicism and looked at the merit of the issues. We on the SNP side are not that bad, honest 😉

  2. This is without doubt the most progressive and sensible articles to have appeared on this website. At last someone who sees the substance of an SNP policy without resorting to cringeworthy embarrassing comments about alleged SNP motives. Well done. The Labour party truly do need more people and thinkers like you!

  3. Perhaps ken macintosh should put his brainwashing case forward on this website and then compare and contrast with this article. Then decide which one represents the future of the scottish labour party.

  4. I have to agree. I admit to being slightly shocked when the cybernats were happy to tell me last night that they had very little Scottish History in school, when my own experience was quite the opposite. Also, was no-one else forced to learn Scottish Country Dancing? We did that from Primary 2 upwards! And i’m still very good at it.

    1. Yeah we had to learn Scottish Country Dancing although it was from p6 upwards. My only scottish history were the wars with Edward I (It was him wasn’t it?) and the construction of the M8 in Glasgow. So perhaps a more concerted approach is needed although the priority should be Numeracy and the Sciences.

  5. To be honest my only objection to this plan is that I feel the education priority should Numeracy and the Sciences. That is where the future of the manufacturing industry lies and if we don’t invest in skills now Germany will power ahead and alot of the new hi tech jobs will go there.

  6. It is quite revealing that foreigners to these shores know more about Scottish history than Scottish children.

    Take for example the Scottish Enlightenment. Who amongst those being educated, the educated and the educators know of the leading figures of this intellectual movement and the huge impact that it had on the advancement on medicine, science, engineering and the arts, the improvement in ordinary peoples’ lives because of it, and the crucial influence it had on the American and French revolutions.

    Here we had Scots inventing the modern world as we know it today, and deliberately so.

    These Scots wanted a new Scotland, a better Scotland for all …………………. and Scots today are completely ignorant of their success.

    If ever there was a case for Scottish studies to be taught in out schools then this it.

  7. How about Scottish studies with Gaelic for every school pupil from P1 to S6, the way they do in Ireland, rather than Gaelic for the few like we have in Scotland?

  8. Thank you Aileen for a good sensible and well argued article, Scottish Studies is something we should all be welcoming and encouraging.

  9. I think history is one of the most vital things we learn, yet the British approach is and always was absolutely horrendous. If we do not know where we come from as a people (Or peoples, if you prefer), how can we possibly understand where we are, or where we are going?

    This is as true for the individual nations of the UK as it is for Britain as a whole.

    All nations have much to be proud of and much to abhor, and I think our children need to know both.

    I think Aileen is completely right in this article. Scots people knowing more about the history of Scotland can only be a good thing.

    Labour should fully and enthusiastically support the idea – and insist on a balanced curriculum that teaches the facts, rather than a skewed one that might inflame tensions with the rest of the UK. Because only a skewed curriculum would favour the SNP.

      1. You could. But the name is not the fight. The content is the fight.

        After all, Scottish studies will need to include context, which includes the rest of Britain.

        There was an excellent article on here a few weeks ago (At least I think it was on here) pointing out that opposition for the sake of opposition alone is pointless.

        I’d add that a fight over trivia often risks losing sight of the real goal. It’s better to concede the things that don’t matter and concentrate on those that do.

        David Robertson (Post below this one) has the right of it, IMO.

  10. Hi Aileen

    Just wanted to congratulate you on the article, some good points. Have to admit not sure if the response from some in Labour and other parties we have seen was just hot air to get on the TV, if not then surely they should wait to see what the plans are before raising objections. Does come across as though they are worried that knowledge of Scotland’s past would be detrimental to their own parties’ ambitions, which is strange when you think of the contributions made by the Labour movement and Liberal party in the history of Scotland.

    As a parent I know that it is important to engage learners by making the subject relevant to them and would have that that using material that focus on their history, including places that they can see around them would encourage them to get involved not only in the lesson but in the community in general. As for a focus on numeracy, science, Scotland has a rich heritage of scientists, engineers, the Scottish enlightenment etc I would have thought that this is something that could be tapped in to encourage students to move in to these fields.

  11. A very good posting, of course we should learn our national history and culture. We should also learn what we can of the history and culture of the people we share these islands with, along with that of our wider human family. Its not a long story, only 70,000years out of Africa.
    A smaller point. When I served in the Royal Navy, many years ago, my English friends knew much less of Scottish history than I knew English history. I suspect that wont have changed.

    1. I remember Ian Hamilton QC complaining about that. He said that in his day he was taught very little Scottish history but was taught about the Norman Invasion in 1066 (he pointed out the Normans settled in Scotland on the invite of the monarchy and Scotland was not invaded) and the Wars of the Roses (which he described as civil war taking place in what was then a foreign country being played out by thugs on horseback).

      I would particularly question the relevance of the Wars of Roses in Scotland (despite the term apparently being coined by W. Scott). I doubt in English classrooms then and now they are taught about the Battle of Saucieburn and its implications——–

  12. I think I must be of the same age group as Aileen as my experience in school was quite similar. The exception being that we did get some lessons about the Tobaco Lords etc in Glasgow. No mention of the slave trade though – it was very much an airbrushed version.

    I think it’s important that pupils get a warts and all version of Scottish history and culture and that it ties in to the rest of the world. One thing I am sure everyne will welcome is making Jimmy Reid’s 1972 rectorial speech available to every secondary pupil. What a lesson that will make.

  13. I promised myself not to post again on this site, but I was *seriously* impressed with this excellent article, Aileen, and wanted to say so. I agreed with every word.

    The key thing in historical studies, I’ve always thought, is to get students to realise that the past consists of a multiplicity of stories seen from several viewpoints — not just some march to a single drum. The Scottish Enlightenment was, we are all agreed, one of the great developments of modern history. But it wasn’t alone (cf. France, the USA); its appearance and indeed impact have a complex relationship to ‘enlightenments’ elsewhere — not least because it took place after 1707.

    Here’s a thought: next time you are in Edinburgh, look at the New Town, a truly ‘enlightened’ construction. Whatever happened elsewhere in Scotland (or indeed elsewhere in the ‘new’ United Kingdom), the people who lived in those rather splendid squares and boulevards were *not* the oppressed.

  14. Further to my last: except for the servants, of course! And, Gavin, who are ‘we’? I’m not getting at you: just inviting you to reflect.

  15. Jeremy, the “we ” would be the Scots. That is, the people who inhabit that country called Scotland ,and whose children would be involved in an educational system which would incorporate “Scottish Studies”. The point of this blog,I had thought.
    I understood modern academics had pushed the beginings of the Enlightenment way before 1707.

  16. Thanks, Gavin: that’s a helpful clarification.

    And yes, the roots of the Enlightenment go way back before 1707, but I think most scholars see the special (and extraordinary) Scottish contribution as being post-1707.

  17. As a nationalist I have to say congratulations to Aileen Colleran on a very well written and balanced article.

    Ken Macintosh (or whoever the next Labour education spokesperson if he becomes leader) would be well advised to follow some of the sensible advice given.

  18. As someone who regards himself first and foremost as a Briton, I genuinely feel that Scottish studies should be confined to the dustbin of history. As a life-long supporter of the Labour Party, I firmly believe that the teaching of Scottish history in Scottish schools could only result in our party losing even more support in our heartlands. I may sound old fashioned, but I am not alone in worrying about the calamitous consequences for Labour and Great Britain if we carry on down this slippery slope. To me, Scottish history begins with Keir Hardie and his struggle to improve the lot of our working classes.

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