Britishness is simply not British

Keith Sharpe

Keith Sharpe questions the value of attempting to imbue pupils in the United Kingdom with a strong sense of national identity.

In the corridors of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's inner sanctum it is common knowledge that Dr Nick Tate's recent peroration about the failure of the English education system to communicate a strong sense of national identity had more than a little to do with his francophiliac admiration for the way the French education system manages to instil Frenchness in what that country's national curriculum calls "tous les petits francais".

It is worth remembering that this phrase continues to encompass young people on French territory anywhere in the world just as it did when children aux pieds noirs were required to recite the palpable falsehood, 'nos ancetres les gaulois'.

The contrast between the two countries is stark and undeniable. The important question though is why is the French system so successful and the English system so unsuccessful?

It is arguable that not only has the English school system failed to transmit a sense of English or British identity, it has actually fostered, or at least presided over, a resurgence of regional identities which are to some extent actually antipathetic to the concept of Britishness, especially as the prospect of regional identity within a European rather than British context is perceived by some to be a real possibility.

Dr Tate's answer appears to be the now familiar policy-maker's lamentation "blame the teachers". Specifically he criticises them for presenting pupils with "watered down multiculturalism" and offering a relativistic approach to social values and traditions. After a decade of unrelenting attacks on their professional work it is unsurprising that educators of all sorts should react to such a critique with strong emotions. In a recent phone-in programme Dr Tate was taken to task by a number of indignant callers involved in the education business pointing out that schools do teach English history, do teach English literature and do promote "Englishness".

The problem with Dr Tate's answer is not that it is wrong but that it is only part of the story. French schools have little time for multiculturalism and certainly do not suggest to their pupils that "it is possible to choose from an array of values and traditions". French teachers are undoubtedly doing what Dr Tate would like British teachers to do. What Dr Tate does not offer us, however, is any analysis of why teachers in the one country act like this and in the other like that. It would be naive to hold teachers as individuals responsible and equally simplistic to hunt out bogeymen such as "progressive theorists" or "left-wing unions". France has both, and its teacher unions are predominantly left-wing and much stronger than their British counterparts. Yet across the Channel left and right broadly agree on a consensus view that education in general and primary education in particular are essentially concerned with the transmission from one generation to the next of the collective wisdom, beauties and truth inherent in la culture francaise.

As Durkehim pointed out many decades ago the explanation for such phenomena must be sought at the level of society not of individuals. National identity is a function of the national context in which it is created and sustained. National context may be defined as the interacting forces of cultural traditions, institutional structures and political policies, all of which are underpinned by fundamental value commitments. France has a much higher level of cultural consensus, much more centralised and homogeneous institutional structures and generally more focused policy-making. All of this is reflected in its educational organisation. The English and British equivalents are by comparison vastly more heterogeneous, diffuse and even sometimes contradictory.

The same great Education Reform Act of 1988 which introduced a centralised national curriculum simultaneously gave a further twist to decentralisation through local management of schools, governor power and grant-maintained status.

The principal effect of England's long history of localism in education is that schools develop their own corporate sense of identity and become progressively more different from one another. The Dearing reform of the national curriculum can be interpreted as the failure of centralist policy making in the face of deeply entrenched localist values embedded in English culture. To French eyes all this undermines uniformity of educational provision, denies equality of opportunity and weakens the sense of national identity.

In England children are encouraged to make a personal identification with the particular school they "belong to". We have assemblies, uniforms, school teams and the like to ensure that this happens. In France children are encouraged from the beginning to identify with the nation; the basic unit of reference for a French child is the stage of education she is at within the national educational structure. Ask an English primary child about their schooling and you will be told about Mrs Jones' class at St Mary's School. Ask French children and they will say they are in the cours preparatoire or en sixime. In English education fundamental value orientations stress all that is local, particular and diverse; in France the emphasis is on what is national, universal and common.

Such differences go far beyond the realm of policy. Dr Tate's remarks seems to imply that if only teachers would offer a more partial, committed and Anglocentric programme to pupils all would be well. The fact that most teachers think they are doing this anyway and that leading policy-makers think they are not in itself speaks volumes about the nature of English and British self-identity.

For French people national identity has been a central high profile feature of their personal experience since before Napoleon. It is something to be discussed, analysed, agonised over and above all held sacred. For equivalent historical reasons English and British identity have tended to be a more low key, taken-for-granted presumption of national worth, a quietly assumed glow of pride in belonging to a great nation as a backcloth for more immediate personal identities.

The relativistic multiculturalism Dr Tate bemoans is precisely a characteristic British response of recognising and valuing the rich diversity of the local and the particular. French education is unequivocally more assimilationist. In a recent Economic and Social Research Council-funded research project in primary schools in Northern France the majority of teachers who had Algerian or Tunisian pupils in their classes did not know whether they spoke French or Arabic at home and saw no place for any celebration of North African culture in L'Ecole Francaise.

In the last analysis national identity is a social phenomenon which is at best only partially amenable to policy engineering. Dr Tate's dilemma is that it is not possible simply to transplant "bits" of France's system. It is good at national identity because of the existence within its educational apparatus of a whole host of dirigiste administrative and organisational features which probably Dr Tate and certainly the present Government would entirely abhor. So long as English educational policy objectives continue to pursue diversity, local control and "choice", and these seem to be widely shared values apparently now embraced by all main political parties, French pupils will continue to be more upfront about who and where they are in the world.

Dr Sharpe is principal lecturer in education at Canterbury Christ Church College. (This article is based on the results of research in France funded by the Economic and Social Research Council whose support is gratefully acknowledged.)

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