Hang Ups

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Remember that you are an Englishman and have consequently won the first prize in the lottery of life," said colonialist Cecil Rhodes in the days when there was honey still for tea and nobody had heard of a penalty shoot-out.

Today, however, the English are finding it decidedly more difficult to convince themselves that they've scooped the jackpot. Incidentally, this really is an English problem rather than a British one. In Wales, for instance, we're cock-a-hoop about being Welsh, and have nothing but sympathy for those with the misfortune of having been born on the wrong side of the Severn Bridge.

Euro 96 helped the English to rejoice in their Englishness, but, according to Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, it's going to take far more than a few goals for the nation to regain a collective pride in its own identity.

And just as Nelson told his fleet that "England expects every man to do his duty", Dr Tate reminds teachers that the nation's salvation lies ultimately in their hands. They must restore the exploits of Nelson and the legion of other English heroes to the syllabus. They must teach patriotism, spiritual values and morality. It's a tall order. Indeed, one can't help but feel that if toothpaste ever had to be squeezed back into the tube, Dr Tate would expect teachers to be able to do that as well.

The latest task he has set them is just as much of an impossibility - he wants them to take on the might of the computer industry. They must challenge the "grandiose claims" being made for IT and, instead, "consciously promote the book as being at the centre of the curriculum alongside the new media". Perhaps they should - but even as they do, they must pay heed to their newly-prepared lessons on King Canute. The information superhighway is coming. And teachers, politicians, or even the chief executives of government quangos aren't going to be able to do a thing to stop it.

Dr Tate is particularly worried that English children are going to be subjected to software with "American spelling, expressions and cultural references" that fails "to recognise this country's cultural distinctiveness". Despite the fact that nearly everything children enjoy on television originated in the US, Dr Tate thinks that "it is very important that what children do in schools is related to their own traditions". He's not the only person who is worried. Sir David Puttnam, the film producer, is equally perturbed.

Just as in the early days of the movies when Holywood cornered the world market, the US could take an unassailable lead in the production of multimedia for the burgeoning edutainment industry. The purists might complain, but the packages will be of such a high quality that British schools will inevitably choose them in preference to the home-made alternatives.

Sir David says: "I do not believe that it is in the least xenophobic to suggest that such a prospect raises the most fundamental issues of identity, issues that in my view we ignore at our peril."

The solution that Dr Tate suggests is that a government agency should monitor all software to ensure that it is "culturally specific". Sir David's answer is far more exciting. The UK, he argues, is uniquely placed to beat the US at its own game.

We speak American - almost as well as the natives; we have easy access to the European market; we have an enviable record in book publishing and television production; and, for more than a decade, our software houses have been learning for the specific needs of education. With some Government support, and a co-ordinated strategy the UK could dominate the global market for edutainment.

It's a heady prospect. Sundry Dr Tates in other countries will have to worry about English cultural imperialism. And in England, you might even start feeling that you've won the lottery.


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