A peculiarly English problem

So the English haven't come to terms with who they were? Has not history taught them how to define their identity today? Should English national identity be discussed in school history lessons, and the issue incorporated in the National Curriculum?

"When I raised this question a while back, it made headlines but not much debate", said Dr Nick Tate, Chief Executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA). "Not many people seemed to know how to talk about the issue. The misconceptions were amazing. And this does seem to be an English problem. I'm not saying that national identity is a clear-cut issue in Wales and Scotland, but at least they talk about it."

Talking at a Finnish-Scottish workshop on the nature and purpose of school history, held at the Institute last December, Dr Tate moved on to the National Curriculum.

"Basically, in England we turned a decentralised system into a nation-wide prescribed curriculum. Debate about this has tended to be dominated by utilitarian and, sometimes, economic terms. Also, debate at the outset of the National Curriculum was not as wide-ranging as it should have been. Curriculum development wasn't seen as part of social policy, nor were society's values discussed in terms of curriculum development." How are we to view the question of national identities, then, both as such and in connection with school history curricula?

"We can examine this issue by looking at what a national identity is not. It's not nationalistic, monolithic or static or an exclusive identity that is incompatible with other identities."

The English problem therefore seems to be that this post-imperial state hasn't developed a sense of what it is to be English, let alone European. A static sense of national identity, for example, has located the state in the past, when it was the norm in the British Isles to be English, and others had to define themselves against this.

"In school history, too, the emphasis used to be on past heroes, which defined values and gave a moral purpose. What we have now is a great debunking of historical heroes, heroines and myths. Also, history was considered important, above all, in developing transferable skills, whereas I would wish to emphasise the concept of cultural literacy, a knowledge base that helps people understand who they are. They need this even more now that the Western world has, to some extent, lost the Christian world view."

This is why the question of a national identity becomes so crucial. The role of (school) history in cultural transmission must be discussed. Some say that history has absolutely no role in cultural transmission, while others think that moral values in history should be explicitly recognised. Education is not just about distributing bits and pieces of this and that across the curriculum, but in fact about cultural transmission. This is why the debate about school history and national identities could do with a few more nuances rather than crude headlines.

Nick Tate has since been appointed chief executive of The Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority (QUANCA), which will replace the SCAA and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.

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