A leading Tayside educationalist has accused former First Minister Alex Salmond and top Scots author Ian Rankin of “bullying” an Angus head teacher in a row over the controversial play Black Watch.
Dundee High School rector Dr John Halliday said criticism of Kirriemuir secondary head Jane Esson was “contemptuous” of her professionalism after comments by the high-profile pair over the decision of Webster’s High School not to study Gregory Burke’s hard-hitting work centred around the Iraq War.
The play, which first appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006, details events leading up to the deaths of three servicemen in a roadside bomb attack in 2004 and contains graphic language and sexual content.
Some parents had criticised the Webster’s decision as “ridiculous and childish”, leading to Rebus creator Rankin and fellow members of the writers’ association Scottish PEN sending an open letter to the Angus head teacher.
In his Courier column, Mr Salmond said he was unhappy the “rollicking production” was not being studied.
Angus Council has stressed the play was not banned by the Webster’s head teacher but since it is not on the SQA prescribed reading list, a decision had been taken to study another text.
In a letter to The Courier, Dr Halliday said he was concerned at the way Mrs Esson had been “vilified” over the Black Watch row by Mr Salmond, author Rankin and others.
“They all talk about freedom of expression. In fact by twisting facts and rounding on an excellent head teacher in this way they are themselves attempting to suppress that freedom of expression,” he said.
“They are making political cheap shots and indulging in what could be seen as a form of bullying. At the very least, it is contemptuous of the professionalism of head teachers.”
Dr Halliday continued: “Black Watch is a powerful drama but it is not necessarily everyone’s first choice of theatrical experience. In schools, heads and English departments make decisions every year about which texts to study and which not. They do so based on their own professional expertise and experience.
“The SQA itself makes decisions as to which Scottish texts to recommend and which not. Interestingly, they have not included the said play Black Watch. Perhaps Alex Salmond should therefore first vilify the SQA for ‘blackballing’ this play.”
He added: “Cultural decisions as to what should or shouldn’t be studied in schools should never be made by politicians.
“The law can intervene if a text is illegal. Otherwise, it should be left to the professionals in liaison with parents and pupils.”