Search for who we really are

20th June 2008 at 01:00
Dedicated week to examine British identity
Dedicated week to examine British identity

Pupils in more than 500 schools will be examining who they are and where they come from next week in a new annual event designed to help teachers get to grips with the complex issue of British identity.

Who Do We Think We Are? Week was recommended in last year's review of the citizenship curriculum by Sir Keith Ajegbo, a former London headteacher. But it is designed to be cross-curricular, taking in other subjects, such as history, geography and English.

Inspired by the BBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, in which celebrities trace their family trees, the education version aims to help pupils look at their local areas as well as issues such as religion and "Britishness".

"We hope the week gives pupils the opportunity to look first at their local communities and to study the relationships, the triumphs and the tensions around them," said Sir Keith. "We believe the journey begins at home and then moves outwards to the wider UK and global contexts."

Participating in next week's events should help to prepare schools to teach the new "identity and diversity" strand of the citizenship curriculum from September. The autumn will also see Ofsted start to inspect schools' new duty to promote community cohesion.

Jim Knight, the schools minister, said that ultimately the week could help to combat extremism and racism, but also emphasised using the "personal" as a starting point.

He will be leading by example on Wednesday when he visits Brooklands Primary in Blackheath, south London, where he was a pupil in the early 1970s.

"I am looking forward to going back and seeing what it's like," he told The TES. "I have recollections of reading Janet and John books during the power cuts and the three-day week under Ted Heath."

More than 200 of the schools taking part are in four local authority pilot areas: Bradford, Bristol, Barking and Dagenham, and Cheshire.

In Barking and Dagenham, an Urban Question Time will see secondary pupils question council officers about community cohesion.

Projects in Bradford include a cross-curricular film project encouraging pupils to find out about the city's history of migration and diversity.

Ministers eventually want all schools to take part in what they hope will become a fixture in the education calendar.

But what about areas of the country without a history of immigration? Mr Knight said that there were opportunities to discuss identity in areas such as Portland, in his Dorset constituency - an "extremely homogenous white community of white working people, some of whom have never left" - because of the area's association with the Navy and use as a base by the Americans during the D-Day landings.

"I don't believe there is anywhere in the country that hasn't got a depth of history which says something about where people come from that informs a view of the wider world," he said.

Mr Knight's wife's grandmother is Jewish and took part in the protests against Oswald Mosley in London's East End in the 1930s.

"Even in my own case, with a very simple, straightforward English background, you start to touch on the history of where we come from as a country, the importance of the fight against fascism and respecting different people's identities and faiths," he said.

'Britishness' probed

Some assembly ideas for Who Do We Think We Are? week

1. Ask pupils what they know about the person sitting next to them; then ask them to describe themselves in three words and to consider the many things that make them who they are.

2. Look at the school and the local community and the type of collective identities they have. As a starting point, use the John Stuart Mill quote: "The worth of the state in the long run is the worth of individuals composing it."

3. Ask pupils to consider Thomas Hobbes' description of life without society that co-operates as "solitary, nasty, brutish and short" and think about what communities achieve, what makes people belong to them and the effect of religion.

4. Explore history and settlement, showing that movement is a regular part of life and has an impact on everyone's lives. Ask if any pupils have lived in the same home all their lives. Consider that Britain has always had immigration.

5. Use the Socrates quote: "I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world" to look at the theme of national and British identities, asking who pupils will be supporting in the 2012 Olympic Games.

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