Editorial - Britishness has never been a one-horse race

This week has had more of an equine presence than Royal Ascot - a Trojan horse, a few hobby horses trotted out and a fair number of people clambering on high horses.

At the centre of it all are allegations that some children in Birmingham were being exposed to Islamic extremism, which led to five schools being placed in special measures by inspectorate Ofsted.

The education secretary wasted no time with his response: forcing schools to "actively promote clear British values". And he didn't mean drinking tea or vomiting in the streets. No, these were far more grandiose but otherwise difficult to distinguish from those of any other liberal Western country: "democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths".

This is not the first time the government has waded into the murky waters of what it is to be British. It did so in 1988-90 with the Speaker's Commission on Citizenship, in 1998 with the Crick report Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools and latterly in 2006 with the Diversity and Citizenship Curriculum Review.

Britishness is a difficult concept to define, let alone promote. Citizenship and nationality are far easier to teach if, as a nation, you have a revolution and a written constitution by which to define yourself. One of our great achievements has been building a civilised society on a system without any black and white rules, which makes the whole idea of Britishness rather nebulous.

As Stuart Hall, the late University of Birmingham cultural theorist, argued, "Britishness is not one thing and has never been one thing. There have been a million different ways of being British and there have been a million different struggles about Britishness which only retrospectively are then smoothly accommodated into the story as if it's unfolding seamlessly."

In time, this latest struggle, too, will be accommodated into the story. All schools naturally work hard to serve their local population. Understanding the community's needs and building good relations with parents is integral to ensuring learning flourishes. It's certainly what Park View School did with gusto, achieving great academic results into the bargain. It's hard not to sympathise with assistant principal Lee Donaghy when he says that the academy has been "demonised for doing what the community here wants and giving their children a bloody good education".

How far should schools go to accommodate the desires of their communities? There isn't a simple answer to this. Ultimately it will be down to the good sense of school leaders. Adopting dress codes that don't offend cultural sensitivities but that also reinforce gender equality, for instance. But respect for difference should never undermine what is better termed a shared Enlightenment rather than British values.

Communities themselves also have a responsibility to embrace the country that is their home. As the child of post-war Polish immigrants I grew up in a community that lived by the mantra "integration, not assimilation", with normal school during the week and Polish school on a Saturday. Do I feel British? Yes, absolutely. But if there's an international football tournament on, just don't ask me which team I support.


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