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Cry God for King Eric and the Queen Vic

Traditionalists insist history should be about kings, queens and famous battles - preferably British ones. But such an approach does little to build national identity, says Paul Goalen.

Britons lack pride in their country because they don't know its history. That was the rallying cry of right-wingers when the national curriculum was being constructed, and later when it was being revised during the Dearing Review. Teaching more British history of the right kind would foster a more patriotic population, they argued.

There is little evidence to support their case. Early researchers into children's development, such as Horowitz and Piaget, did not focus on the contribution of the history curriculum to building a sense of national identity. More recent analysis of imperialistic history textbooks from the early 20th century has sometimes assumed that their messages were quietly absorbed by a passive audience. Even if this were true, today's curriculum would have to be intolerably prescriptive, absorbed through standardised texts and rote learning, to have any chance of successfully delivering an officially approved version of Britain's past. Even then, pupils would undoubtedly reject such a pedagogical catastrophe as a tedious imposition.

History must now compete with the visually exciting worlds of television and sport, which are probably just as important as the school curriculum in helping to shape identity. I interviewed two dozen 13 and 14-year-olds (23 of them white) approaching the end of their key stage 3 history course, and I found sporting allegiance to be a good indicator of national identity. Seventeen of the interviewees supported the English football team, two boys with Italian fathers supported both England and Italy in football, and an Indian girl supported India in cricket and England in football.

There are limits to pupils' patriotism at this age, however. When it came to individual sporting stars, allegiances sometimes crossed national boundaries and were based on personal talent. So, while UK sporting stars were mentioned 20 times, overseas stars such as the Manchester United footballer Eric Cantona were mentioned eight times. When asked about the beef crisis, only seven pupils supported the stand taken by the British Government, while nine pupils were opposed to the Government's position and supported the European Commission's ban.

As for television, the pupils drew on programmes from the wider English-speaking world. While the home-produced EastEnders was the most popular, with 11 mentions, Australian and US drama featured strongly, with Neighbours mentioned by eight pupils, Home and Away by six, and The X-Files by five.

The children continued to be eclectic rather than nationalistic when asked about their experience of school history at key stage 3. Favourite topics produced nine votes for the Second World War, four for Martin Luther King, three for the English Civil War, and two each for slavery, Napoleon and the Wars of the Roses. Asked which other history topics they would like to have studied, they opted more often for world than for British history. Topics included: the US, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam war, Gandhi, Ancient Egypt, a range of European countries, the Caribbean, Aztecs and Mayans, Ireland, fashion, music, the Tudor era, and Queen Victoria. On this evidence, children see themselves as citizens of a "global state".

There was one topic that did seem to have had an impact on the development of their national consciousness. When asked which passages from history made them feel proud to be British, two pupils mentioned the Industrial Revolution, but 14 mentioned the Second World War. Typically, the reason for this was "because we won".

But for nearly half the sample this pride was tinged with regret about other episodes from Britain's past. Ten pupils came up with examples from historythat made them ashamed to be British. Slavery was picked out by four; another mentioned the public-school officers of the First World War; others cited the Treaty of Versailles, a 19th-century cholera epidemic that was checked only when it hit the rich, and the bombing of German schools during the Second World War.

This pilot study provides little evidence that the centrally imposed history curriculum is producing a narrowly nationalistic generation. On the contrary, popular culture, particularly sport and television, may be feeding an interest in the wider world that teachers could build on if only they were allowed to. Indeed, 16 of the pupils in my sample demonstrated healthy democratic tendencies in their insistence that the voices of both pupils and teachers should be heard in the debates surrounding the construction and revision of the history curriculum.

Paul Goalen is head of history at Homerton College, Cambridge.

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