My Thoughts on Britishness

I begin this post with one of my favourite photographs of my teaching career. As our school’s Geography coordinator, I put on a whole school week titled ‘A World of Difference’ each January, in which different year groups each focus on some globally relevant topic. Year 3 look at the idea of survival. Year 4 look at the idea of ‘rites of passage’. Year 5 look at ‘Multiculturalism’. And appropriately, with almost Nostradamus like foresight, Year 6 study Britishness.

Last year’s week culminated with a ‘Jamboree’, an evening event where kids from all year groups shared their learning to a packed hall full of parents. To add a bit of jazz to it, I roped in Chap Hop superstar Professor Elemental (@Prof_Elemental), who worked with me and some Year 5-6 kids on rap workshops. The kids then performed their British-themed raps to the hall full of parents, before a stonking performance by the Professor.

Here is Professor Elemental in action.

I feel that the image at the top captures something problematic about the idea of ‘teaching Britishness’ or ‘promoting Britishness’. For me, as a white teacher in a school where the catchment is overwhelmingly South Asian, Britishness perhaps represents something different for me than it does for them. There are definite crossovers – a passion for cake-making ranking high among them – but certain issues are necessarily contentious.

Am I expected to extol the glorious past achievements of Britain to the descendents of those who lost their lives as a consequence of Cyril Radcliffe and his wanton doodling onto the map of India back in 1947? The partition can either be taught as it happened, or it can be taught as ‘Britain freed India, now that it had found its feet’ – the truth is not going to be creating the sort of unifying Britishness that the government will be pining for – it is hard to build a sense of national pride out of our imperative role in catalysing ethnic conflict between communities that had lived among each other relatively harmoniously for centuries.

In some areas, an unthinking approach to teaching Britishness will be tantamount to attending a survivors meeting chaired by your abuser. If Britishness is going to mean anything at all, particularly the historical context of Britishness, it needs to be approached with criticality.

Professor Elemental is an all round boss, and his song ‘I’m British’ is one that I used with our children to look at the ‘memes of Britishness’ – the mutually appreciated stereotypes, traits, hobbies, practices and character traits that represent Britishness. This idea of Britishness is really fun, eclectic and quaint and perhaps it is this that the government ought to be striving towards, if they seek to promote social cohesion; to dig into British history, particularly in multi-ethnic classrooms, risks stoking up the tensions it is (I think) implicitly seeking to quell. Some teachers appreciate the benefit of telling these stories, but some don’t and some don’t even know them.

Professor Elemental has views on the teaching of Britishness – “Like so many things, if the teaching was left to the teachers it could be rather nice but there’s every chance the government will beat the fun out of it, then turn it into a set of meaningless tests before forgetting about it completely when the next hot topic comes up, to be shoehorned into the curriculum.”  Quite so.

My approach to teaching Britishness, if it is going to be taught at all, starts with a frank and open approach to discussing the negatives as well as the positives. To teach Britishness  through a solely positive lens – “These kind men travelled all the way to the savage lands to bring order!” – is completely disingenuous and, if the aim is to promote ‘Britishness’, I think it counter-intuitive. What happens when the kids realise the realities of British rule? They see the current education system as complicit in whitewashing (and rightly so). That is the touchpaper for the dissolution of cohesion.

When teaching Britishness, I want the children to be analytical and critical. There is much to resent about British history, but it would be equally wrong to walk into a room and indoctrinate them about the evils of Empire. We should show the good and the bad, and open up space for the pupils to discuss what it means to be British. It must be reflective in order to be purposeful. In doing so, they begin to engage with the question themselves, rather than merely having a zero-sum ‘for/against’ response to being indoctrinated.

In the characteristically British spirit of ‘We’re all in this together’ (and as a reward for getting half-way through my meandering post) I share with you my unit of work and accompanying powerpoint. Credit once again to Professor Elemental @Prof_Elemental and I hope he is ok with having 10 year olds dissecting his lyrics with a critically conscious toothcomb.

Year 6 Activity and Lessons Pack

Year 6 Britishness PPT

As you’ll see, the unit is specific to teaching in a majority non-white, non-British-origin school. It went down really well with the teachers, with the kids and with parents. The final piece was a multimodal art project, combining images of Britishenss with their views and the views of their parents, written up over the imagery. It looked great. When the kids do it again in January, I will put some up on here. The questionnaire, which enabled parents to be involved with the project too, is here  to download.

Parent Questionnaire

Here now then are my views on the teaching of Britishness.

The combination of a lack of shared understanding of what Britishness is, combined with the expectation that it must be promoted/taught, is absolutely ridiculous.

The way that ‘failing to promote fundamental British values’ is so regularly tied to Islam suggests, even if not intentionally, that a key reason for the need to promote Britishness is the ‘unBritishness’ of Islam.

Any values that are worth promoting are not tied to any specific national identity. If you want to promote ambition, grit, persistence and a solid work ethic, do so, but don’t pretend that this is peculiarly British because it isn’t.

When ‘British’ means different things to different people, is there one coherent Britishness that is to be artificially constructed and dispersed, or do we take account of regional variation? For example, teaching in East London where there are children from all corners of the globe, it makes sense to talk of a Multicultural Britain because to them it is. Grimsby isn’t particularly multicultural.

Does the desire to promote Britishness risk becoming more divisive than cohesive? If I was a Somali 9 year old being told that Britishness is all about the joy of Christmas, and national love of a bacon butty and getting around the TV on a Saturday night with the rest of the population to watch Stevie Ritchie dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh having honey poured over his torso by scantily clad women… I would leave the classroom feeling more Somali, more Muslim and less British.

What is my solution then? Admittedly I am enjoying posing these provocative questions and ideas, but I don’t think they are provocative because they are contentious, just because they are seldom asked. I am perhaps a bit anomalous because I am neither proud nor ashamed to be British – I acknowledge its influence over me and how it has subconsciously sculpted me in its image. I am aware that from the outside, as a wordy white Oxbridge teacher in a predominantly Asian school community, I am seen to represent ‘British man’ (a child once wrote a poem about me, where the first line read ‘Very British, Very Bald’…).

I believe in a cohesive society and I want to live in a society that has a shared system of values. I want to live in a society  where people of different backgrounds regularly interact and come together in a kind of public sphere. I don’t care so much, personally, whether these people are black, white, Asian, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Atheist or whatever. I don’t want to live in a monoculture, but I don’t want to live in a society where everybody’s cultures are diluted into a bubbling effervescent broth of nothingness either. Communities and groups should be able to practice their beliefs with integrity, without fear of reprimand or tabloid scorn. Despite being an atheist, I am happy to see streets dotted with churches and temples and mosques, with sunday schools and madrasahs, but what is different from what we have now is that I want them to be along the same metaphorical street. Rather than lush cobbled villages full of quaint little churches, and city estates peppered with minarets, I want the mix. I want to see the WI in some Emmerdale-esque village doing flower arranging for the local mosque. I want the vicar to be popping next door to the temple when he runs out of tea bags.

I want a society which respects difference, which goes beyond tolerance (as though others’ cultures are something to be tolerated) and where people aren’t scared of each other. When people are able to practice their beliefs and still engage with others who practice other beliefs, or share different values, we have something more like a coherent society. My fear is that, no matter what the intention, ‘Britishness’ is too tarnished a banner for us all to march behind. It is too loaded.

The question that needs to be asked is whether we want ‘Britishness’ to develop or just the values it is meant to represent. Perhaps if we really embraced intercultural understanding, tolerance, respect and the free exchange of ideas, we would mutually agree that ‘Britishness’ is the wrong vehicle for promoting a socially cohesive sense of shared identity.

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