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In 1990s Scotland, our teachers taught us nothing we could relate to

Can you make a 16-year-old, fresh off a weekend of cheap stimulants and Dutch techno, sit down on Monday morning and feel engaged by numerators and denominators?

By Tom Newlands

Growing up in Scotland, class loomed large – not in the day-to-day, but in decisions that were imposed on our community from the outside. The heavy industry that for centuries had sustained the area I grew up in was wound down completely in the 1980s, a move which in turn wound down the livelihoods of the families in the towns and villages around me. My classmates came from those families. As their work-hardened grandpas retrained as complaint handlers or sales associates, heroin arrived and dismantled their dads. By the time I started high school in the 1990s, the atmosphere of intergenerational hopelessness had curdled into detachment and adolescent ultraviolence – spoons in eyes, slabs on heads, blades in backs.

And not just after the home-time bell, but before it too – there was no chance for many pupils at my school because of chaos in the classroom; chaos created not just by poverty and joblessness, but also by a bizarre and dated curriculum that was impossible to relate to. The things we were given to learn were imposed from  a distance by a separate class of people who had no concept of the reality of our lives or our futures.

[See also: My dreams were deemed unrealistic]

Can you make a 16-year-old, fresh off a weekend  of cheap stimulants and Dutch techno, sit down on Monday morning and feel engaged or fulfilled by playing the theme from Steptoe & Son on a gut-string guitar? By finding numerators and denominators?  By reading Dust Bowl fiction, or memorising the dates of the Kronstadt rebellion? A curriculum must be aspirational, but first it should be relevant, and this is doubly important when it comes to the arts – triply important when teaching children who’ve already had their heads turned. Writers back to Shakespeare and before knew that to engage an audience you must first reflect something of their lives back at them.

We were so hungry for something we could relate to, that when it came time to pick a book to analyse  for a Standard Grade essay in our English class, Trainspotting had to be banned because 27 of the 31 pupils in the class chose it. I was willing to learn, I was interested, I was a passionate reader in my own time, and yet my experience at school only discouraged me.

[See also: Failed by the system, I became a lecturer at 50]

In the end I mainly learned endurance at school.  I didn’t get a university education, and it was my own determination that pulled me clear of the decisions, made elsewhere, that shaped my area. Now, I’ve written a novel: Only Here, Only Now. It’s set in central Scotland, in the 1990s, but it’s nothing like Trainspotting. It does, however, feature themes and characters that the people I went to school with might just recognise.

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Tom Newlands is supported by A Writing Chance, a UK-wide project from New Writing North designed to discover new writers from underrepresented backgrounds whose voices have historically not been heard in publishing and the media. You can read work by other writers in this initiative here.

A Writing Chance is co-funded by Michael Sheen and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and supported by the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. The project is delivered by New Writing North and literature organisations nationally, with research from Northumbria University.

This piece is published in Michael Sheen’s guest edited issue of the New Statesman, “A Dream of Britain”, on sale from 25 March.

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain