Guidance was released this week advising that the Union Jack should be flown on government buildings every day of the year, rather than only on patriotic occasions such as St George’s Day and the Queen’s Birthday, as it is currently.
Meanwhile, MP Robert Jenrick’s recent controversial BBC interview has highlighted just how keen many of our politicians are to be accompanied by a Union Jack in their media appearances, and has shown how contentious the question of displaying the flag can be.
Education hasn’t escaped the flag-flying debate. In December last year, a group of 35 Conservative MPs wrote to Michael Gove arguing that all state schools should fly the Union Jack.
However, a government mandate to fly the national flag on every school building would be a mistake and a jingoistic step backwards for our education system.
Union Jack: Flag-flying at school
The practice of flying the national flag is ubiquitous in the US, with all secondary schools displaying the American flag and students pledging allegiance to it on a daily basis. But this declaration of enforced nationalism clearly doesn’t make for a united nation, as the tumultuous political situation in the US in recent years has demonstrated. A mandate simply to fly the flag from every state school would serve no useful purpose in this country.
One must ask, too, whether the timing of the letter from Conservative MPs represents a predictable reaction against the renewed criticism of Britain’s colonial past that took hold in 2020, in the wake of Black Lives Matter.
Many of our young people have begun to question critically Britain’s historical role in the world. And, like it or not, the flag has associations with Britain’s imperial past.
Even back in 2012, a YouGov poll found that 63 per cent of the UK populace associated the Union Jack with “empire”, compared with 36 per cent who felt the flag reflected a “modern, diverse Britain”. The antiquated prospect of flying a flag from our schools will not magically remove these associations and foster national pride for everyone.
Harking back to a nationalistic past
Furthermore, the prospect of such a mandate for state schools not only harks back to a nationalistic past but also seems to be an overtly ideological attempt to quash criticism of the government.
At precisely the point at which millions of people in this country are questioning the government’s record on handling the coronavirus pandemic – including thousands of teachers who have been affected by the DfE’s decision-making at various junctures – Conservative MPs are choosing to focus their attention on attempting to increase patriotic feeling in the form of the Union flag. This hardly seems to be a coincidence.
And should we be particularly concerned, anyway, with increasing students’ patriotic attitudes, whether in the form of a flag or not?
Arguably, our focus should be on nurturing key universal moral values, which emphasise our treatment of others, as well as values such as respect, responsible citizenship, empathy and kindness. Rather than plastering flags on our schools in a clumsy and archaic attempt to increase patriotism, it would be far better to devote our time and energy to focusing on the development of core ethical principles.
Let’s focus on teaching our students how to contribute to a better world and to be responsible citizens, both in a global context and in their local communities. That way, we will be able to give our young people something to truly take pride in.
Megan Mansworth is an English teacher and PhD student. She tweets as @meganmansworth