A fine line between English or British - or not

From next September, all state schools will have to teach citizenship. Within this potpourri of ideas, ideals and aspirations lies the issue of national identity. Most of us living in England have yet to resolve the issue of whether we are English or British. (The Scots and the Welsh, of course, have no such dilemmas.) The confusion is exemplified by the English football team singing the British national anthem.

The sense of unease is increased by the association of English nationalism and the St George's Cross with football thuggery and extreme racist views. It's almost impossible to imagine an English school flying the English flag, not so much out of political correctness, but out of sheer unfamiliarity.

Three events have followed in quick succession to highlight our confusion. The Queen Mother's funeral passed most schools by. The DfES timidly suggested that heads allow pupils to watch on TV, but few did. A combination of incomprehension, indifference and inconvenience meant that life went on as usual in most schools.

Her funeral was followed four weeks later by the Golden Jubilee. Many primary schools, but few secondaries, had some sort of event. Tens of thousands of children lined the Mall in London, but this probably proves merely that we like an extra day's holiday, particularly if there are fireworks.

The big one for English schools has been the World Cup. How were they to respond, particularly to early morning matches? To a large extent it depended whether or not the head liked football. The head of one north London girls' school ordered all sets switched off at 8.40am on the day of the England-Nigeria game, so lessons could start. Her reason was that "girls do not like football". She was rewarded with a sack full of letters of complaint and mass absenteeism on the day of the England-Brazil match.

Most schools acted sensibly. Many hired large screens, while some parent associations laid on early breakfast and turned it into a special event. But schools have been reluctant to take advantage of the learning opportunities. Not one teacher I've spoken to from five schools prepared a lesson with a World Cup theme.

What does this outburst of flag-waving and English pride mean, and how far does it extend? Of 120 key stage 3 pupils in my multicultural north London school, 62 told me they regarded themselves as English, 30 British, and the others said their national allegiance was determined solely by their ethnic origin. Meanwhile, conversations with children of well-educated and affluent Asian families revealed a sense of statelessness. Expelled from East Africa in 1972, their grandparents had settled in Britain. Most of these pupils hoped to qualify in medicine or law, and anticipated leaving England. Any sense of specific national identity was missing.

For those who regarded themselves as English, I explained that virtually all of the 30 million English flags sold during the World Cup were made in China and that this was likely to damage jobs in British flag-making companies. This was not an issue for them. The important thing was their expression of solidarity with the England soccer team.

But a bright Year 10 class did not know who St George was, and could not give the date of his day.

My conclusion is that for school children, any sense of national identity is defined by the level of soccer fanaticism. For a significant minority, it is defined by ethnic origin, and in the post-September 11 period an additional layer has been added by the debate on what it means to be a British Muslim. To what extent citizenship education will be able to address such issues is unclear.

Andrew Granath Andrew Granath is head of history at the Latymer school, London borough of Enfield

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