English - and not very proud of it;Research Focus

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Keith Sharpe examines the vastly different views of nationalism held by primary schoolchildren in England and in France

Primary pupils in France are much more proud of being French than English children are of their nationality.

When asked what they think about their country, French children will wax lyrical about their magnificent scenery and the traditional values of liberty and equality. But English pupils are more likely to commend football teams and pop stars.

The children's starkly contrasting views on national identity have been revealed by the joint University of BristolCanterbury Christ Church College Quest project, which is based on a survey of 850 upper-primary pupils in Avon, Kent, Calais and Marseilles.

Fifty-seven per cent of the French children strongly agreed with the statement "I feel very proud of being French", as against 35 per cent in England when asked how they felt about being English. Furthermore, 17 per cent of the English pupils disagreed when asked if they considered themselves to be very English; only 9 per cent of the French responded in this way. And whereas 74 per cent of French pupils agreed that "it matters which country I belong to", only 42 per cent of English pupils thought this.

It is also significant that twice as many French children felt their schooling had prepared them well for their future lives as citizens - 66 per cent as against 30 per cent.

Analysis of the children's freely made comments also indicated big differences in the way they thought about their citizenship and national identity. French children tended to have a more unconditional love of their country and described it in more expressive terms.

English children, by contrast, seemed to interpret the researchers' questions as an invitation to think objectively of pragmatic reasons why being English is a good thing.

French responses included references to "notre beau pays" (our beautiful country) and the obviousness that if one was born French one would be proud of being French.

Where they tried to rationalise their love of France, they would write "parce qu'on est libre" (because one is free) or "nous sommes tous egaux" (we are all equal). One child wrote "car la France est un pays magnifique et democratique et accueillant" (because France is a magnificent, democratic and welcoming country). No English child wrote in these grandiose terms.

The English responses seem to reflect a child's view while the French responses often appear to echo adult attitudes. But the real distinction may be between the essential pragmatism of the English, and the idealism inherent in French culture. By the age of 10 or 11 both sets of children may have been largely assimilated into the perspectives of their societies.

What preoccupied English children most were the practical benefits and achievements associated with the country, particularly in sport, music and language: "Man Utd come from England, so do Eternal . . . English is a well-known language that's spoken worldwide".

The English children's more measured "weighing up" of advantages was particularly apparent in those responses which compared England with less fortunate countries: "It's not too hot or cold, we can have clean water and food . . . English people are good and healthy . . . being an independent country".

Using such criteria, England comes out quite well and so it's good to be English. It is as if the English children assume that they can be independent consumers of nationality, and opt for Englishness for specific informed reasons.

If the French children can be seen to be reproducing the sentiment of 1940s' popular songs, the English children's approach is more 1880s' Gilbert and Sullivan: "and resisting all temptations to belong to other nations he remains an Englishman."

Mentions of English national icons, such as the Queen and pubs, were rare, and none of them really indicated any chest-swelling pride. Several English children in fact implied that being English is definitely not something to be proud of.

The more positive French view of national identity is matched by a more positive attitude to schooling, and the two are inter-related. In France, education is an important consensual value. The school embodies this collective commitment by providing a clear, publicly understood national ladder of progress to which all have access. This has remained essentially the same over generations.

French pupils understood that their teachers had a national scholastic programme to "get through" and that they had to master its content in order to "pass" into the next class. All French pupils thus have reasons to feel that their teachers are "helping" them to achieve something that has a high social value. In this sense educational achievement and socialisation into national identity are, at least in primary schools, part and parcel of the same process.

These cross-national differences in identity and attitude take on considerable significance in the context of the debates in England about the perceived breakdown in moral values and social order in schools. In particular, they suggest that policy responses, such as stricter religious education, the use of corporal punishment, dress codes for teachers and the introduction of civic education, need cautious scrutiny.

In France, both religious education and corporal punishment have always been prohibited in state schools. There is no dress code for staff and an apparent widespread acceptance of informal, casual style without loss of discipline.

This implies that the moral values which underpin the more positive attitudes towards schooling and national belonging shown by French pupils have more to do with wider social and cultural factors than with the mere existence of civic education as a minor part of the national curriculum. Specifically, the cultural emphasis in France on uniform primary provision appears to be linked with strong identity and pupil commitment in a similar way to last year's much-publicised Taiwan case study by Professor David Reynolds.

The Tory government's insistence on promoting educational "choice and diversity" undermined the sense of a common, shared national experience of schooling which might underpin stronger feelings of national identity.

By putting education in the market-place, it also reinforced "consumerist" attitudes in an area other countries consider a matter of moral duty and public service. Time will tell whether the new Labour Government's stress on making schools better really does herald a sea change in this regard.

Dr Keith Sharpe is director of Primary Teacher Education at Canterbury Christ Church College. The other Quest researchers are Patricia Broadfoot, Marilyn Osborn, Claire Planel and Brigitte Ward. Another article on the Quest project appeared in Research Focus on January 10.

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