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Sense of identity

Margaret Conway has researched students' opinions on 'sensitive' areas of study

The trend is for young people to enjoy their history lessons at school.

They also see the subject as relevant to their lives. And what's more, when it comes to their perceptions of who or what has helped them develop opinions about the history of their country, the classroom is by far the most important source of influence.

These are some of the most encouraging findings of research I carried out in secondary schools in Oxford and Northern Ireland.

This comparative study looked into questions about the teaching of sensitive issues in history, in two regions of the UK over a period of six years. Protestant and Catholic pupils in mid Ulster and state and independent pupils in Oxford were both surveyed in two cohorts, 1996 and 2001.

I tested pupils' responses to a questionnaire to see if there were any significant differences that could be explained in terms of region, religion, cohort and school year. This research was undertaken amid the continuing debate about a national curriculum for history, where the focus is on relevance, usefulness - especially for employment - and increasing the amount of British history in the syllabus to foster a particular sense of national identity.

Nick Tate, as chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (forerunner of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) and John Patten, Conservative education secretary from 1992 to 1994, were among those proclaiming that huge doses of British history would address social fragmentation by transforming the way young people see themselves as part of the wider community.

In the two regions, contrary to the expectations of those who insist that most pupils find a number of topics difficult to deal with because of their religious and ethnic background, only one in four out of the 1,737 surveyed stated they felt uncomfortable with any one of up to six topics that they had studied.

And pupils liked history: in a five-point scale they gave it nearly four.

There was also evidence of it becoming increasingly popular with all ages and in both regions. Furthermore, there appeared to be a positive correlation between the rating pupils gave to history and the extent to which they felt comfortable during lessons - Jthe more a student likes history the easier she or he finds coping with potentially unsettling topics.

Contemporary Irish history was the particular area that young people in Northern Ireland agreed to be the most sensitive. After more than 30 years of inter-community conflict in the province, this is hardly surprising. By contrast, in Oxford, where it is possible to find Nazi Germany on the syllabus at key stage 3, GCSE and A-level, Jewish history, such as the Holocaust, was considered to be the most contentious subject, both by pupils and history teachers.

I recently held some follow-up interviews in one of the schools to investigate why the 25 per cent who had stated they felt uncomfortable with any one topic had felt like that. Although pupils gave a variety of reasons, most of these were connected to some aspect of their national identity which they felt had been undermined by the teacher or at least one other pupil in the class.

It is also interesting to note the extent of concurrence between schools and cohorts. There are no significant differences between Protestant and Catholic schools in Mid-Ulster, regarding learning Irish history, or between state and independent schools in Oxford, regarding Jewish history.

Similarities are also found in the responses of year groups in both regions. Younger pupils feel just as comfortable as their older counterparts when being taught apparently sensitive issues.

Moreover, despite a change in government, with Labour coming to power in 1997, and in the peace process, with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there were no significant changes in what pupils reported to find sensitive in 1996 and in 2001. Perhaps this finding can be explained by continuity in the content of the history curriculum in both areas. However, it must be noted that the 2001 questionnaires were circulated just before the events of September 11 challenged sensitivity towards the Muslim community in Oxford.

Also, in 2001, the impact of small numbers of Portuguese and other European groups settling in Mid-Ulster was only beginning to be felt. This is an area largely unfamiliar with an immigrant community.

Further research is needed to see if other topics - eg the crusades - Jare now replacing the Holocaust as the most sensitive issue on the curriculum.

The responses to six statements designed to investigate attitudes and the possible effect of history teaching were more varied. Overall findings for the two cohorts were very interesting.

First: despite there being some uncertainty about the extent to which teaching sensitive issues in history actually improves community relations (35 per cent admitted to not knowing the likely impact), 44 per cent agreed that it makes people tolerant of others.

Second: the vast majority of all pupils thought they should be exposed to controversial issues in schools (only 10 per cent disagreed).

Third: there was also consensus that learning history helps people to know the truth.

Fourth: only 10 per cent responded negatively to the idea of history having relevance to life - a huge endorsement of the perceived value of the subject.

Fifth: an encouraging vote of confidence was also given to history teachers in that only 14 per cent of all pupils considered their teacher's views to be biased. This is particularly the case in Mid-Ulster where, despite the higher degree of sensitivity acknowledged, fewer pupils were inclined to believe their teacher's opinion was biased.

Responses to the sixth statement, however, showed Irish pupils feeling less confident than English pupils about the impact that learning history has on liberalising attitudes. Although in favour of learning sensitive issues such as Irish history, they were more likely to agree that bringing them up in the classroom made people more prejudiced and biased.

I learned a lot about which processes young people believe are the ones by which they learn the history of their country. History classes were rated 4.3 on a scale of one to five, making them by far the most influential source, followed by reading history, learning from relatives, and television. Friends and newspapers were considered to be the least important source.

Although all schools rated history highly, the Irish pupils were found to perceive history classes as being significantly more influential than the English pupils did. Asked about the findings, James Winters, head of history at Rainey Endowed School, Magherafelt, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, says they are interesting in the context of the debate on the role of school history, but they nevertheless remind us that school history is still only a part of the influence brought to bear on pupils: "History may be enjoyed and objectively taught, but when pupils return to the tribal areas in which they live our impact is lessened."

While the more recent survey confirmed the enormous impact of school history teaching, it also indicated a growth in the influence of television. This greater reliance on learning from television was not significantly different in the two regions, although older pupils tended to regard it as being more influential. Significantly, by 2001, there was also a growth in the influence of television on younger pupils.

This evidence of the positive influence of history teaching comes at a time when the current concern is to cultivate a sense of Britishness. Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, laments this country's loss of Shakespeare and wants to "assert that there is a core of Britishness".

History has a special role to play in delivering a more complex or multi-layered explanation of Britishness, one that accounts for racial, cultural and religious diversity while simultaneously reconciling conqueror and victim, as well as native and immigrant.

At present, Shakespeare is the hero who is heralded as the unifying figure in Britain. Tomorrow, who knows, it may be Gandhi or Mandela. One thing is certain - school history will remain a sensitive issue. But it looks as though young people can handle it.

Margaret Conway teaches at Rye St Antony School in Oxford and is completing this research for a PhD at University of London Institute of Education Email:

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