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It’s time to talk about language

The first in a pair of blogs by Jamie Fairbairn and Claire Needler about their project, 'Local language, school and community: Curricular innovation towards closing the achievement gap', which won the BERA British Curriculum Forum's Curriculum Investigation Grant for 2018/2019.

Jamie Fairbairn, Banff Academy

Scots is one of three native languages spoken in Scotland today, the other two being English and Scottish Gaelic. In the 2011 census it emerged that around 1.5 million people speak Scots across Scotland. The reality is that most pupils in Scots-speaking areas come to class with Scots in their heads and at the tips of their tongues. In many cases English has been learned as a second language after Scots, in order to fit in to a ‘norm’.

‘Why are schools not bending over backwards to encourage pupils to engage with their mother tongue? Surely being bilingual is good, not bad.’

So why are schools not bending over backwards to encourage pupils to engage with their mother tongue? Surely being bilingual is good, not bad. Are we missing a huge opportunity in terms of, for example, improved literacy, skills, confidence, better cultural knowledge? And more to the point, how many pupils have, at best, not been allowed to fulfil their potential, and at worst been silenced or humiliated by the way they speak and the way that teachers deal with this? We’ve all heard stories of people being belted for speaking their language in the not-too-distant past. Could it be time to make the mother tongue a totally positive educational opportunity rather than, as in the past, something to fight against, a bad thing holding pupils back?

Well, in order to address these questions, first you have to knock on the head the idea that pupils are speaking slang – and teachers need to call each other up for suggesting so. Teaching about the long and distinguished history of the language can help – the language of kings and queens as well as loons (boys) and quines (girls). Show them that the words they use can be found in big dictionaries, and hark back to a time before modern English. Glaikit, meaning daft or foolish, for example, was first used in the 1500s, and is still heard in the corridors today, surviving the dominance of English for 500 years. Do the pupils know that the word wow appears in a poem in Scots written by Gavin Douglas in 1513?

That’s all very well, but how can you add Scots to an already busy curriculum? Is it worth it? What is its status in schools?

Well, the SQA brought in the Scots Language Award in 2014, and some schools have run with that, finding that bairns love it and can get a qualification at the same time. Personally, I have found it to be an amazing experience as a teacher, but there is still some prejudice, or indifference, towards it and you have to be quite determined. Timetables are busy. In my own case I have found that forming partnerships in the wider community is the way to go. These include local area groups, links with other schools, the research community (Aberdeen and Robert Gordon Universities), libraries (links with authors and poets) and groups such as Into Film and Historic Scotland. These links give legitimacy, raise status and are mutually beneficial, giving bairns a rich experience. There are a number of funding opportunities for projects in local councils, and at a national level, our being awarded a BERA grant has been a huge boost. It’s been very rewarding working in partnership with doctoral researcher Claire Needler from Aberdeen University’s Elphinstone Institute, and comparing our approaches as teacher and researcher. The pupils have really enjoyed her presence and taking part in individual interviews on their attitudes to Scots. The research element has become a part of the learning itself, and I can see this model working more in the future.

A senior Scots language elective course, five periods per week, for pupils aged 14–18, is now embedded in the curriculum at Banff Academy, and is doing well. This years’ uptake is 25 pupils. About 80 pupils have received the award since its inception, and around 1,000 bairns have engaged with the Scots language at junior phase (age 11–13). Perceived benefits include boosting self-confidence (which can benefit all endeavours at school), developing literacy in a different context, thinking skills through translation, improving cultural knowledge (which develops empathy), discussing complicated issues and boosting creativity – all important skills for growth areas such as media and tourism.

But what of the future? Well, first we need to get more schools on board with offering the Scots Language Award. But beyond that, is it not time to move on from classes about the Scots language, and start thinking about classes in the Scots language, whatever subject they may be in – that is, Scots-medium education (SME). This already exists for Gaelic, and rightly so, but what about Scots? What about a pilot SME hub in the heart of Aberdeenshire, where parents can choose for their bairns to learn subjects in the medium of their own mither-tongue: Scots?


A companion piece to this blog by Jamie’s collaborator on this project, Claire Needler, has now been published.

Jamie Fairbairn and Claire Needler’s project, ‘Local language, school and community: Curricular innovation towards closing the achievement gap’, won the British Curriculum Forum’s Curriculum Investigation Grant for 2018/2019. The grant is awarded biennially to support research led by schools and colleges with a focus on curriculum inquiry and investigation. Click here for more information.