Qualified Failure?

Everybody remembers their exams: the tight feeling at the top of the stomach; drinking water as advised, only to need the toilet three quarters of the way through; tsking when someone’s phone has gone off; the horror when you realise that phone is yours; the cotton wool head at the final question with only three minutes left – all familiar I’m sure.  Yet in Scotland, this year is going to be slightly different.  A new qualification – National Five – is being introduced, the first exam to be run in conjunction with the Curriculum for Excellence.  Curriculum for Excellence seemed a great step forward in education, recognising the importance of creativity, problem based learning and building skills outside the normal memory test associated with doing well at school.  All good stuff – who wouldn’t support these ideas?  

Yet, the new English exam is very similar to, well, the old one.  In fact, it could be argued that it tests an even narrower set of skills than the Standard Grade exam it is replacing. 

The reason for stating this is that the new exam places the onus on answering questions on texts studied in class, while the old Standard Grade gave the candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their skill in writing in a number of different ways. Any creative aspect of writing is relegated to the folio of writing which the candidates have to prepare in class and which is worth less.  Please do not misunderstand: I am not defending the Standard Grade, which had its faults, such as a folio which was too unwieldy.  On the surface, this appears to be a non-issue – the pupils do not know the questions in the new exam beforehand, so they will of course need ingenuity to answer.   The problem, however, with ingenuity is that it is ethereal; a task might present no problems for a candidate one day, yet the next day an almost identical task may be completely beyond them.  And on results day, a teacher offering up their hands and stating: “They must have had an off-day,” rings hollow. Understandably, teachers are at pains to remove any variables, and limit the need for ingenuity, in fact ignoring many aspects that the Curriculum for Excellence sought to inculcate.  

The reason I state this is purely because I do it myself.  The most efficient way to get candidates to be able to answer an exam question on a text is to write a model essay which answers a similar question, the pupils can then go and learn this and using only a bit of savvy can adapt this to the questions in the exam.  Minimal reading of the text is needed.  The exam is only a memory test.

Undoubtedly, candidates studying English should be able to demonstrate a knowledge of literary techniques, but couldn’t this be done in a more creative way? Perhaps, under exam conditions, producing a short text like a poem, short story or a short story themselves – even a short film, showing awareness of these literary techniques by using them for themselves.  Even something like blogging, with its use of tagging and understanding of audience might be used.  Why not?  

What is more, we would more than likely find some real additions to the Scottish canon as a result, ensuring that Scottish Literature and the written Scottish identity continues to exist in a vibrant way.




A Great Effort Must be Made

The power of film and its ability to install an idea into the collective consciousness is something that it is impossible to overestimate.  This is something that, ahead of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, should exercise the minds of interested parties. For instance,  ‘Braveheart’ was released close to eighteen years ago, yet continues to lay waste to the still maturing idea of an independent Scotland. Yes, the fact that it played fast and loose with the facts; that fact it was made by someone who has had little to do with Scotland; the fact that it implies that Scottish identity was a reaction to aggression, and so Scots were, in fact, defined by external influences and the fact that this identity that is portrayed as little more than a thrawn unwillingness to be pushed around is simplistic, but none of these criticisms are new to the cultural discourse surrounding the film.  However, there is another aspect to the damage the film has done.  A fifteen year old,when asked if she were in favour of Scotland becoming independent, gave the vehement response of: “Nuh.  No really.”  She was completely representative of the opinion of her school class, all of whom will be eligible to vote in the referendum.  When pushed as to why, the reply came: “Well, all that Braveheart stuff seems a bit… daft.  People that like it …”  And this is the problem: all the ideas associated with an independent Scotland and its supporters, in the popular mind at least, cannot escape this Mel Gibson film, like branches floating downstream becoming ensnared with a larger branch.  Furthermore, this warlike, and reactionary, plank of our national identity does not fit modern purposes, even provoking slight embarrassment when drunkenly trotted out at national football games.  The Scandinavians have got over their association with the vikings after all.

Thankfully, it is not impossible to escape this state of affairs – thick strands of present Scottish identity are the result of fabrication and the nation has clasped them to its bosom.  The association of tartan with clans and the brighter plaids we see in kilt hire shops all stem only from the mind of Sir Walter Scott, envisaged to impress the visiting British monarch, yet this association is enthusiastically supported by Scots.  A kilts is more interesting and more versatile than a morning suit, after all.

So, at the moment, with the Scottish Independence Referendum looming, many Scots are overtly trying to find a way to weave more vivid, lively, strands into the plaid of  identity, to modify its tone.  And yes, it goes without saying that it is far easier to denigrate something old than it is to create something new.  Add to this the elusive nature of something amorphous like identity, that hovers around the edges of consciousness anyway, something that changes, becomes less vibrant when pinned down or observed, and the difficulty of the task increases exponentially.

So what is to be done?

Perhaps Scots should cast their eyes back to Aristotle, paying heed to his adage that: “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence then, is not an act but a habit.” Habits are unconscious things but grow out of the repetition of conscious acts.  Scotland should view identity as a living process, not as something crystalised in our past. If Scotland is to create a habit, a stream of acts from which it can look up, then look back upon and identify itself with, then a great effort has to be made.  There has to be a sense of civic duty amongst the population.  Have we seen this participation, this duty in the referendum debate so far? It seems that many wish to sit back and be convinced, or have had their attention drawn to the squabbling about oil.

Hopefully, with a government more suited to their needs, Scots would participate more, but it is a wry irony that until such a government exists, Scots might not take part in the process in enough numbers to create this government.  But, say Scotland did become independent, how would it create the social capital needed to encourage people to habitually contribute, in as small or great a manner as they wish, to public life?

One of the most prepossessing answers to this problem comes from the manifesto of ‘The Collective’ a site that aims to build a Scottish identity through the creative arts.

“National movement is not based upon identity but of discovering an inclusive and outward looking way in which to ultimately develop better places for society to engage with one another.”

This is referring to architecture, but there is absolutely no reason for not extrapolating this idea and applying it to other areas.  The internet, for example, provides non-physical spaces where ideas and opinions can grow and social media’s utility as a political tool has already been proven throughout the world.  Closer to home, groups who get very little exposure through traditional means, such as ‘Crofters for Yes’, can find audiences cheaply.  With the advent of internet phones, it is possible to fulfill Rousseau’s idea of every citizen having a vote on each law.  It would show Scotland’s confidence in its people if it incorporated this idea in at least some form.  Imagine the social capital that would create.

What is more, this idea, by not  even trying to fix Scottish identity, makes it possible for it to exist at all.  One of the main downfalls in trying to express Scottish identity is that a multitude of Scotlands exist:  The Northern Isles are different from the Gaidhealtachd, are different from the Central Belt; the workers in our plants in our cities are different from call centre workers in the Highlands.   Viewing being Scottish as a process, a living thing, with areas of discussion and interaction nurtured, would create a strong Scotland.  In not attempting to catch and preserve a Scottish identity as handed down to us by others the people of Scotland would achieve freedom.