Reading between the national lines

10th December 2004 at 00:00
During the 1990s I took part in many discussions about the European dimension in the school curriculum, in the context both of different versions of the national curriculum and of the revisions that were taking place in external examinations.

It was one of those educational debates where there was often an unspoken sense of the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality, together with a feeling that one was never quite getting to grips with the issues. There was a lack of clarity about the balance that one was trying to encourage between local, regional, national, European and global dimensions. There was also a lack of clarity about whether one was mostly talking about a political European Union context or a much broader cultural one.

None of this was surprising, given England's uncertainty about its European identity and how this related to the various identities within the British Isles and to Britain's close links with the non-European world. I remember discussing the question in Tower Hamlets with a group of sixth-form girls largely of Bangladeshi origin, and realising that what we were trying to achieve was far less clear than I had thought.

When I moved to an international school in Switzerland I found that the issue had disappeared. I cannot imagine that anyone in the International School of Geneva has ever worried about "the European dimension" of the curriculum. There are two reasons for this. First, by definition, being an international school, we aim to educate students of all nationalities, all of whom may well be resident in Europe but many of whom have no particular attachment to this part of the world and may only be spending a few years here before returning to their own country.

The second reason is that Switzerland has kept well clear of the European Union, instead developing a role in the world that is decidedly global. One reason why my school receives state support is because it helps, in a small way, to maintain the presence in Switzerland of a host of international organisations that are a crucial part of Swiss identity.

And yet Switzerland probably has a far stronger European dimension to its state school curriculum than England. Four major European languages, including English, are widely spoken. Its long frontiers, though carefully manned, are porous, with vast numbers of people, such as me, living in one country and working in another. A recent poll demonstrated what a close sense of affinity the Swiss have with all of their immediate European neighbours.

I have just been reading the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, a great pan-European writer if ever there was one. Zweig was a bitter opponent of the First World War which destroyed the cultural links between different European countries that were so dear to him. During the war he came to Geneva and was delighted to find that, in a neutral country, he could once again speak his mind freely and meet people from the other side of the trenches.

Twenty years later he wrote a splendid biography of Erasmus, another great European who has given his name to one of the main European educational exchange programmes. Like Zweig, faced with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, Erasmus had also struggled in the sixteenth century against the rising bigotry and particularism that followed on from the split in European Christendom at the time of the Reformation. Like Zweig, Erasmus continued until his last days to assert the importance of a wider view and of the primacy of universal values.

The fact that I have only just now, late in life, discovered the most widely-read European author of the 1920s and early 1930s is an indication of the lack of a European dimension in my earlier education. Even though my present school is definitely un-European, my students are certainly getting a more European literary education than I did.

One of the excellent features of the IB is its requirement for students to read large numbers of texts in translation. Students leave my school with a much wider knowledge of European - and non-European - literature than my contemporaries ever did.

This is one feature of the IB that might well be adopted in England. The sense of affinity with other Europeans that comes from reading Hugo, Tolstoy or Lampedusa is, let's face it, rather more important than all those tedious arguments about the euro.

Andersen in translation 35 Nicholas Tate is director-general of the International School of Geneva. He was the Government's chief adviser on curriculum and assessment for England, 1994-2000

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