How The Scottish School System is Failing Readers

Last month I was admiring all the books I own (as you do) and I was surprisingly proud of my classics collection. I use the word ‘surprised’ because I hadn’t read a classic since secondary school, so my measly collection of six classic books I was rather chuffed with. In that moment, I promised myself to make a conscious effort to read a classic this month – I’m actually reading two! – but it really got me thinking, why haven’t I read a classic since I left school?

One night at the dinner table I took a trip down memory lane, trying to remember all the books I had read in school. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember the book I studied in Higher English! About these guys and they collect things that fall off trees… The Cone Gatherers? That’s the one. It took me a whole week to remember the title without using google. That clearly shows how much of a lasting impact it had on me. I reminisced about the time I failed an essay on MacBeth because I got all the characters confused with each other. Then I went on to explain the Shakespeare plays I had written my Advanced Higher English exam on. About how a character named Caliban in The Winter’s Tale represented colonialism and slavery. But wait, was he actually in The Tempest? I honestly couldn’t tell you because I can’t distinguish them from each other; everything has blended together into one giant play. This is probably due to the fact that I studied these books and plays within an inch of their lives. From these anecdotes you are probably thinking I didn’t enjoy or wasn’t good at English in school and that’s why I made no real connections to the things I was reading. Wrong. I loved English and reading and writing and at a time it was my favourite subject and the one I was best at. However, sadly English was not a fan of me and I never succeeded in the subject the way I hoped. Or perhaps it was because the teachers made no effort to engage us in the books we were reading. 

For the large part, I never got to choose what books I read and studied in school. The only time I was able to have a choice was when I was writing my Advanced Higher English dissertation. But even then, my teacher told me I wasn’t allowed to do Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland like I so desperately wanted to but instead suggested I study something a lot more modern, like Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Which although I am grateful for as it introduced me to feminist literature, it was the total opposite of what I wanted to research and write about. I can see now that reading in school stripped away all the fun of reading for pleasure for me. In school I was always told what to read and almost never found it interesting – which I’m sure stems from the phenomena of not wanting to do what you are told to do, even if you had plans to do it anyway. I think this is the real reason why I have  not recently read any classics. I have subconsciously tied a negative connotation to them, as that was mostly the types of books I read in school. For me, reading has always been a hobby and it is something I do to relax or to have fun which is why I believe that you should read things you enjoy. Isn’t that how so many different genres and subgenres were created? Authors wrote things they would want to read. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, but it is so amazing that everyone reads different things because we all have different interests and find different things engaging. So doesn’t it seem completely bizarre that school systems force everyone to read the same things? 

Now you might be wondering: In school shouldn’t the priority for reading be to educate students? And to that I answer: YES! But why can’t you have a little fun along that way? I understand that the likes of Shakespeare or Steinbeck help us understand the history of literature and how it has influenced what and how we read today. But do school kids the ages of 11-18 really need to know that? Sure, if they want to research this for their final project or continue it into higher education this should be encouraged and supported, but I believe that there are so many better materials that are still highly educational while also being interesting and engaging for school kids.

What is very poor, is that the Scottish school systems have reused the same materials for years and years and years and not only expect everyone in the class to understand and comprehend it for their exams but also expect different generations to react and learn the same way. For example, my secondary school has used Robin Jenkins’ The Cone Gatherers for at least 35 years as my friend’s parents were shocked that we were reading it when they also read it when they went to the same school. Aren’t the teachers and examiners so bored of it already? I know I would be since when I studied it I was so over it before I even sat the exam. Teaching is something I have always had in the back of my mind as a career choice and recently more than ever I have been seriously considering it. One of the biggest things I have learned through my research on this career is that it is so important to get to know your class and understand how they learn. Which makes me very confused when I think back to my school experience. Why didn’t my teachers try to find what engaged me instead of just giving me the same stuff my parents got? 

The reason teaching English interests me more than teaching a subject like Biology is because I would get to teach students more than what is on the syllabus. I could teach history, religious studies, cultural studies, philosophy, geography, psychology, politics and the values of today’s society through what we read. But what would limit me in this, is if I were teaching the same books I read in school, as there is a huge lack of diversity. For example, in my third year of school I read Of Mice and Men by John Stienbeck. Then in my fifth year of school I read The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins. I am not sure how familiar you are with either of these books but they are essentially the exact same story. Two men, who have the relationship of brothers, move across the country to find work, one of these men has a ‘disability’ and does something that puts them both in trouble. The only difference is that one is set in the great depression in America and the other is set during the second world war in Scotland and they are written by different people. And as you move through school into the senior years when you start to sit exams, the diversity of what you study only decreases. Apart from the authors already mentioned, throughout my national 5 and higher years, I studied work from Carol Ann Duffy, Anne Donovan, Norman MacCaig, Don Patterson, Robert Louis Stevenson and Ann Marie di Mambro. The thing these authors all have in common is that they are Scottish. The Scottish people are very patriotic and so it is totally acceptable to learn and celebrate our own culture and support writers of our own – but God forbid we read anything that doesn’t remind us that we are Scottish! What happened to the idea of wanting to give us a worldly view and teaching us about cultures other than our own. In school, the only time I remember reading something outside of my own culture, was when we read The Diary of Anne Frank (which I think was more an exercise for us to practice reading than it was to reflect on what was actually written) and when we read an article about Nelson Mandela (which was only a close reading exercise for us to identify literary techniques). I’m not saying we shouldn’t read Scottish literature but I am simply saying that we need to make more space for diverse authors and their work. 

I’m sure my vision is a little bit skewed because as an avid reader I do not want to remember a time I use to resent reading. But retrospectively I can see that to an extent, me and my classmates were failed by the Scottish school system. And what is really sad is that I was lucky enough to go to a secondary school where they had all the resources to give us a better reading experience. For one, we had the only permanent librarian in the whole of the county who made sure that her library was full of amazing books that were carefully looked after. To give my school the benefit of the doubt, it is a very progressive institution that made a huge effort to constantly move forward and improve. For example, we constantly had lunchtime library talks with different authors or school students and the librarian set up a paired reader program where senior students helped new first years improve their reading skills. However, no matter what types of schemes schools put in place or how hard teachers work to improve student engagement, they will still not achieve the results they are searching for.

The most important thing to realise is that it is not entirely the teachers fault. Pressure needs to be put on the government and the exam governing bodies to change the curriculum and literature that is taught in the classroom, as that is what is going to make the biggest and most effective change, ultimately giving students a better learning experience inside and outside of school through what they read. Education is something that is important for every person no matter where they come from or their academic abilities. That is why if I ever become a teacher, or even if I don’t, I will constantly push for a better education for the next generations. And if I do end up teaching, you better believe I will get my students studying graphic novels, memoirs, thrillers or any other type of book written in this century and not just the same old boring white Scottish authors.

Ronah xoxo

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