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Never a greater time to explore Britishness

Last week, the Secretary for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, announced that the exploration and embracing of British values will form an integral part of the secondary curriculum. From September 2008, citizenship will include the key concept of "identities and diversities: living together in the UK" (known as the fourth strand). It will give young people a further platform to examine Britishness, building on the existing forums of "democracy and justice" and "rights and responsibilities".

As a citizenship teacher, I welcome the focus on values education forming the core of the revised curriculum. It is crucial to engage pupils who will be our future leaders and voters in the exploration of what Britishness means to them. The reality is that evolving, fluid, subjective concepts such as culture, ethnicity, values and aspirations all comprise an individual's perception of Britishness. This is especially so for the young. It is therefore imperative that they have a platform to explore these attributes in an empathetic, open-minded and secure forum.

To support this approach, some citizenship teachers have been developing a programme with financial services firm Morgan Stanley to help teachers explore Britishness with young people. This is not about teaching pupils a checklist of Britishness that would inevitably fail. The purpose of the Great Britons Learning Programme is to help teachers to allow their pupils to express their perceptions of what being British means.

Before setting up the programme, we did much research with educationists, who stressed the importance of teaching the subject but also highlighted the challenge of discussing Britishness in a classroom where they could be confronted with a diverse range of languages and ethnicities. Many teachers noted that young people reject being defined as British, preferring to define their identity through a range of dimensions such as heritage, culture, ethnicities and values.

After the July 7 bombings in 2005, there was disbelief that British terrorists could have perpetrated the attacks. This has fuelled the desire to forge a unifying identity which, while recognising the diversity of our citizens, brings British people together, giving all citizens a sense of identity and collective ownership of what it means to be British.

Now, more than ever, there is a need for dialogue in classrooms on the meaning of Britishness, and citizenship teachers should be given the support they need to ensure they can engage students to take part in it.

* www.greatbritons.orgstaffroom

Lee Faith

is head of citizenship at Deptford Green school, south London

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