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The importance of a sense of identity

Almost 10 years ago I woke up one morning to find the screaming headline "Teach Them To Be British" across the front page of The Daily Mail.

It was a report of a speech I had given, as chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, in which I had argued that instilling a sense of national identity and common culture should be a central thread in the curriculum for all pupils "whatever their cultural or ethnic background".

It is a statement that would pass unnoticed in 2005. But at the time I was widely attacked for my views. National identity was of little significance, I was told, beside world citizenship. Promoting it reeked of indoctrination and xenophobia. The idea of a common culture was, moreover, oppressive of minorities. We lived, didn't we, in a multicultural society in which we were all free to choose our own beliefs and customs and in which all that mattered was that we respected the choices made by others, whatever they were?

Reflecting on the response to reports of my speech, I found a strange mixture of naive relativism, cosmopolitan disdain for the merely national, and inherited guilt arising from our imperial past, underpinned by more than a dash of residual marxism. Eventually I ceased to be shocked when someone got up and told me at a conference that the national curriculum was "racist" because of its emphasis on English history and literature; when a northern LEA demanded that the national tests be made available in minority languages; and when a survey into racism in an under-privileged metropolitan area found that white working-class pupils knew so little about their own culture that "they walked like ghosts down the richly multicultural corridors of their school".

It is not surprising, given such attitudes, that we now find substantial numbers of young Britons with no sense of a British identity who, in a few cases, hate it so much that they are ready to kill themselves and their fellow citizens in order to harm it. If anyone doubts the alienation from Britain that some of these young people feel they only need to read the interview with a young British jihadist published in a recent edition of Prospect magazine. Over the years we allowed ourselves to forget that a political community needs a common sense of belonging and a shared collective identity, not just a token allegiance. We are now paying the price.

Attitudes had begun to change, however, long before the recent London bombings. Both as education secretary and as home secretary, David Blunkett promoted a strong sense of civic British identity perfectly compatible with the maintenance alongside it of other identities. Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, has also been critical of the emphasis we have placed on particular communities at the expense of the wider community. Since July 7, such views have become commonplace. If I were to give the same speech now as I did in 1995, I might well be accused of stating the obvious.

Attitudes change slowly, however, and it should not be assumed that, despite a national curriculum that explicitly aims to help young people develop their sense of identity, including their national identity, the crucial importance of this aspect of school life has been fully understood.

In France, where I live, the new school year has been marked by the uncontroversial decision of the French education minister to require all primary schools to teach pupils the "Marseillaise". I would not recommend that England follows suit with a requirement about the national anthem: the "Marseillaise" is less divisive (there can be few French monarchists left, but there are a lot of British republicans), English traditions are more understated, and the British state has historically been much less prominent in people's lives than its French counterpart. One only has to think, however, of the outcry that such a proposal would cause in Britain to realise how we have over-reacted in our desire to play down the symbols of our distinctive political community and how far we still have to go to remedy this.

Schools should not be blamed for these problems. They largely reflect the wider society. They have also made a vast effort trying to shape themselves into civilised communities with shared values and mutual respect. But this is not enough. We need to build further on these achievements and develop a stronger sense of identity with a wider political community, at both national and local levels.

Nicholas Tate is director-general of the International School of Geneva

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