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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 January 2007, 01:07 GMT
How about some British history?
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Mike Baker
When my elder daughter spent a term in junior high school in the USA she was required to learn, by heart, the names of all the American presidents.

Her class also started to memorise the names of all the individual states.

It seemed that, wherever you came from, you were expected to learn the core facts of mainstream American history.

By contrast, in her 13 years in school in Britain she never learned the chronology of the British kings and queens. Equally, I'm not sure that she could locate on the map of the British Isles many of the counties of England, never mind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I don't write this to embarrass her (I'm sure she is past being embarrassed by her dad) but to make a point about this week's report into the teaching of British identity through the citizenship curriculum.

What should we be taught if we are to gain a better understanding of British identity?

Judging by the responses to our own Have Your Say section, many of you have strong opinions on this.

Social cohesion

Let us return, for a moment, to this week's report on Diversity and Citizenship, commissioned by the government from the former head teacher Sir Keith Ajegbo.

There had been an expectation that it would be about how schools could do more to teach ethnic minority children about British culture and values.

It was, after all, commissioned amid concerns about social cohesion after the London bombings and the race riots in the north of England.

Britain was puzzling over how a few young Muslim men, born and educated in Britain, could feel so alienated that they wanted to blow up their fellow British citizens.

Yet the way the report was presented this week, it seemed to be far more about white, particularly working class pupils, who, the report said, felt "disenfranchised" and who had "negative perceptions" of British identities.

The report's conclusion was that as much effort needed to be put into providing "diversity education" to white pupils as to ethnic minority groups.

Somehow it seemed to slide between teaching about "Britishness" and about teaching "mutual understanding and respect".

'The lens of history'

It was hard to tell whether this was about the teaching of citizenship or history.

Indeed, at a news conference, Sir Keith Ajegbo said British identity should be "studied through the lens of history".

Don't they need to know more about their own white, English inheritance?
So he recommended that pupils should be taught about key historical topics: the Commonwealth, the legacy of Empire, slavery, equal rights legislation and devolution.

While these subjects are important to understanding why Britain is a multicultural society, it is less clear how they will make white pupils feel any less "disenfranchised".

Don't they need to know more about their own white, English inheritance?

The report's aims were confusing. Was it recommending that all children, whatever their background, should understand their identity through a study of British history?

Or was it about tackling racism and understanding that modern Britain is a multicultural society?

If it was the latter, then it makes sense to understand the legacy of Empire, slavery, the Commonwealth and immigration.

Family trees

But if it was the former, then where is the secondary school history that relates to the great majority of the population, and in particular the English, white, working class pupils to whom the report refers?

Their cultural inheritance lies in English history. It lies in society-shaping themes such as the 17th Century revolution and civil war, the agrarian and industrial revolutions, urbanisation, the agricultural depression, industrialisation, the rise of the trade unions, universal suffrage and the growth of the welfare state.

brickyard workers in Lincolnshire
Real lives - Lincolnshire brickyard workers in 1920
Among adults there is a strong desire to know about their own particular family's past. There has been a phenomenal growth of interest in genealogy.

For the great majority of the white pupils that family history will include ancestors who, until the mid 19th Century, were agricultural labourers living in the shires.

After 1851, when for the first time a majority of Britons lived in the towns, it is more likely that our ancestors worked in textile factories, iron and steel plants, on the railways, as small shopkeepers and tradesmen or in the vast army of Victorian clerks.

Yet how much of the history curriculum covers these core parts of our social history? Not much, it seems.

Pupils are far more likely to study the Weimar Republic, the Russian Revolution, or the politics (but not social history) of the Tudors.

My children have certainly learned far more in school about Hitler, Stalin and Henry VIII than about how our society was shaped by the agricultural depression or the phenomenal growth of English cities in the 19th Century.

Yet their ancestors were generations of Somerset agricultural labourers whom poverty drove off the land and into cities in the late 1800s.

That is a familiar inheritance for many, probably most, of us.

The study of a narrow period in depth is, of course, invaluable for developing important skills such as source analysis.

But the history curriculum in English schools seems to have sacrificed a sense of the narrative history of the "common people".

No wonder, then, that so many feel confused about their identity.

If we really want to reawaken a greater sense of British identity, then it is time to bring back more British history

For many adults, that loss of identity is being tackled through genealogy. It can give us a strong sense of identity with a particular parish or town and with the agricultural way of life that was the norm for generations of our ancestors until as recently as 150 years ago.

Schools could learn much from this and, indeed, the Ajegbo report recommends a national week of events devoted to investigation of pupils' roots.

The BBC family history series 'Who do you think you are?' has done far more to raise issues of identity and cultural inheritance than any of the ludicrously overblown debate about a certain Channel 4 programme which - unlike just about every other journalist, it seems - I have vowed not to mention.

If we really want to reawaken a greater sense of British identity, then it is time to bring back more British history, not just about the great and the good, but about the ordinary people.

Yes, of course, we need to remind ourselves that immigration has always been a factor of British culture, from the Normans and the Huguenots to the Jews, West Indians and Ugandan Asians.

But let us not allow political correctness to blot out the story of the ordinary lives in British history.

British identity is certainly bolstered by an understanding of the multi-cultural origins of our society, but it is fundamentally underpinned by a clear sense of the social history of the British Isles.

Schools 'must teach Britishness'
25 Jan 07 |  Education

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