The Brit Pack

25th April 2008 at 01:00
Britishness can be a thorny subject, leading to awkward questions for teachers. Stephen Manning salutes the schools that are letting pupils have their say

Britishness can be a thorny subject, leading to awkward questions for teachers. Stephen Manning salutes the schools that are letting pupils have their say

What is Britishness? Is it about multi-culturalism, diversity and change? Or is it more like John Major's vision of a homogenous, unchanging country of warm beer and "invincible green suburbs"?

Bhavin Tailor is in an interesting position - he is an Asian teacher of RE, citizenship and philosophy, standing in front of a sea of white faces who have little experience of ethnic diversity, taking a unit called Multicultural Britain.

His class at Westhoughton High School, a secondary comprehensive in Bolton, Lancashire, has just started this citizenship Year 10 unit as part of their citizenship GCSE. All of Bhavin's pupils, bar one of mixed race, are white. Not only that, but they come to him with preconceptions that, to say the least, need some unpacking.

"We started by discussing how you define being British. For some that meant speaking English and, in a few cases cases, being white," he says. "But to me it's crucial to bring these kinds of issues into the open. Freedom of speech, that is something we can regard as a British virtue; you can say what you want, as long as you justify it. And that is how we come to learn about things."

Using newspaper articles and PowerPoint presentations, the class explores questions around what it means to be British - are there too many non- British people living here? Did this ethnically homogenous version of the country ever really exist?

What do they think?

"We talk about the Norman Invasion, the arrival of African slaves, the arrival of immigrants in waves during the past century," says Bhavin. "The point is that this kind of influx is not a recent thing. In a sense, ethnic diversity has always been a part of Britishness."

Bhavin says that some of the A-level students who have been on work experience have realised that the real world beyond the school gates is one of ethnic diversity. But even so, within the school walls, these youngsters have little experience of multi-cultural Britain. Why should they care? And do they even feel that it in some way excludes them?

This, in a sense, is part of the rebranding of Britain. The Government is consulting on whether to lift restrictions on schools flying the Union Flag, and Lord Goldsmith, the former Attorney General, suggested last month in his report on British citizenship that school-leavers swear an oath of allegiance. But the push goes deeper than that, with Gordon Brown keen on citizenship education as a means of addressing "what it means to be British" at a turbulent time in our history.

So what is Britishness? It's a complicated issue. National identity elsewhere (and even within the British Isles) is often linked with notions of freedom and liberation from an oppressor. But for many, Britishness doesn't have such positive connotations, partly because Britain was historically the ruler, not the ruled. The lingering influence of religion and the monarchy (can you be pro-British if you are not a monarchist?) mean that, for many people, it's easier to avoid the thorny subject altogether.

As a consequence, it seems to have become the preserve of the far right - Britishness equals anti-Europe, anti-immigration, anti-diversity. But many feel that it needs to be reclaimed and that school is the place to do it.

Taking the bulldog by the horns

"Population flow, globalisation, devolution - these are all realities," says Tony Breslin, chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation. "The turbulence and fluidity in a lot of communities and a lot of schools means that children are talking about it and experiencing it. That means we no longer have the option of not addressing issues of what constitutes being British."

Doug Smith, a teacher and citizenship co-ordinator at Swanshurst School, an all-girls' secondary comprehensive in Billesley, Birmingham, agrees. "If you avoid addressing Britishness, then it can be taken over by extremists for the wrong purposes," he says.

For three of the past four years, Doug has run a "Being British" initiative in tandem with the school's geography department, taking about 30 gifted and talented Year 7 girls for a day trip to the local City Learning Centre.

Swanshurst is on the outskirts of the city. Half its intake is Muslim, and there are many Hindu, Sikh, West Indian and Polish pupils.

He starts with a light-hearted "being British" test based on familiar aspects of our national character, such as what are Britons most likely to complain about (the weather) or support (the underdog)? He suggests to them, for example, that "being British is being able to moan about everything" (invoking self-deprecation, a crucial British trait). These are a springboard to discussion and creative work on the subject.

"Some of the kids are from backgrounds where toleration or democracy are not as ingrained, so they do think of these values as specifically British," says Doug.

The sum of its parts

But teaching notions of national identity, especially one as complex as Britishness, can be problematic where young people are more likely to make their affiliations in other ways, according to Chris Waller, professional officer of the Association of Citizenship Teachers. "Our work in schools shows that youngsters build identity around sub-groups - whether it's local, or cultural, or even a football team. They are quite comfortable with the concept of multi-identities. But they don't easily define themselves as British."

Another factor, of course, is the unique make-up of the union - four nations within a nation, each with a slightly different relationship towards the whole. Devolution and nationalist movements have blurred the picture even more - does being pro-British, for example, mean being anti- Scottish? Chris Waller thinks that, in 2007, few schools did work on the tricentenary of the Act of Union between England and Scotland, compared to the greater number that covered the bicentenary of the Slave Trade Act that outlawed the selling of slaves throughout the British Empire.

Though no one would deny the importance of marking the latter, it's an interesting sign that Britain is no longer just the sum of its parts. The whole meaning of the word is under review.

This, at least, is how the Year 9s at Henrietta Barnett School, an all- girls' grammar school in Golders Green, north London, see it. Completing their first module on Britishness, which involved class discussions and trips to London to interview random tourists, lead to striking conclusions. Firstly, they thought that Britishness had changed over the past 100 years, which goes against the idea of continuity and tradition that the word normally evokes. And they thought that Britishness was all about the idea of a compromise between different cultures rather than a cohesive whole.

The pupils, most of whom are from Asian and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, discussed familiar icons and concepts, but some old ideas were cast in a new light. "Bravery is a traditional characteristic of being British, but rather than see it as outmoded, we concluded that it is important, especially now," says Kelly Barry, head of PSHE and citizenship.

"In the climate we live in, people seem to be afraid of each other, as individuals and as separate communities. So people must be brave to overcome these divisions."


"Even before America made it its own, I think Britain can lay claim to the idea of liberty. Out of the necessity of finding a way to live together in a multinational state came the practice of toleration and then the pursuit of liberty." - Gordon Brown, 2006

"It's important to emphasise diversity; to be proud of being British while recognising that it's not better than any other nation. Britishness is not `my dad's bigger than your dad'." - Doug Smith, teacher

"I'm not sure that distinct British values exist. The core ideals being put forward - truth, peace, justice, political and social participation - aren't different from a lot of other countries." - John Lloyd, former adviser on citizenship to the Department of Children, Schools and Families.

"Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and - as George Orwell said - `old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist' and - if we get our way - Shakespeare will still be read even in school. Britain will survive unamenable in all essentials." - John Major, former Prime Minister, 1993


"Identities and diversity: Living together in the UK", the new unit in the citizenship key stage 3 curriculum, is to be introduced in September. It will look at how identities are complex and changeable over time, and will explore: "The diverse national, regional, ethnic and religious cultures, groups and communities in the UK and the connections between them."

It also looks at community cohesion and the relationships between the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.

This is partly in response to the curriculum review on diversity and citizenship, undertaken in 2007 by Sir Keith Ajegbo, which found that "the term `British' means different things to different people," and that there are concerns that it is divisive and used as a means to exclude sections of society. It also concluded that identities are "typically constructed as multiple and plural".

Where to go for more information

- Who Do We Think We Are (WDWTWA) is a national educational programme for primary and secondary schools, funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which will explore identity and diversity issues. A WDWTWA week, promoting activities for schools, will take place on June 23- 28. For more information see:

- Association of Citizenship Teachers www.teachingcitizenship.

- The Citizenship Foundation

- The Making Of Citizens in Europe: New perspectives on Citizenship Education (edited by Viola B. Georgi)


What and when are the UK's four national days?

Wales, St David's Day - March 1

Northern Ireland, St Patrick's Day - March 17

England, St George's Day - April 23

Scotland, St Andrew's Day - November 30

What percentages of the UK's 59.8 million population live in each of the four countries?

England 84 per cent, Scotland 8 per cent, Wales 5 per cent, Northern Ireland 3 per cent.

What are the largest religious groups in the UK?

Christians 71.6 per cent (of which 10 per cent are Roman Catholics), Muslim 2.7 per cent, Hindu 1 per cent, Sikh 0.6 per cent, Jewish 0.5 per cent, Buddhist 0.3 per cent, Other 0.3 per cent, No religion 15.5 per cent, Not stated 7.3 per cent.

Are there as many women in education or work as men? Do women get the same pay as men?

Women make up 51 per cent of the population and 45 per cent of the workforce. The average hourly pay rate for women is 20 per cent less than for men.

Where are Geordie, Cockney and Scouse dialects spoken?

Tyneside, London, Liverpool.

Source: Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship, published by the Home Office.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today