How would you teach a child what it means to be English?

Fran Abrams meets the education chief with a national identity plan
Click to follow
The Independent Online
T S ELIOT once wrote a list of things that define English culture. It read: "Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the Twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th Century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar."

As an American, Eliot was well placed to note what was peculiarly English about the English: it is easier to define a culture of which one is not part. Last week, our home-grown commentators were struggling to pin down what Nick Tate, the man in charge of the school curriculum, meant when he said that English children should learn a sense of their national identity.

Dr Tate is a fan of T S Eliot, but he must admit that the poet's analysis has deficiencies, at least when applied to the modern world. No two people have the same view of what defines Englishness, and Eliot's version may have been idiosyncratic even in its day. So is Dr Tate's.

As a Yorkshireman, his personal list reads: "The flag of St George, the Houses of Parliament, York Minster, the Pennine moors, Yorkshire pudding, George Herbert, William Langland, John Donne, Bede, Turner, Constable, mill chimneys, Handel's Messiah, tolerance and reticence." Oh, and T S Eliot.

Of course, Dr Tate would not suggest that these things should be compulsory in schools. But when pressed, he offers a list of things that schools should teach about Englishness, most of which are already in the National Curriculum. Children in Scotland and Wales already study a curriculum adapted to include the distinctive features of their own cultures. Britishness is something different altogether.

"People tend to think of Britishness in terms of the last 200 to 250 years, which is very much the period of imperial domination. People develop a kind of British identity, and that is regrettably a pejorative word because it has imperialist and nationalistic overtones," Dr Tate says.

His top 10 cultural touchstones go back beyond this politically fraught period. They are presented here in no particular order.

Wales, Scotland and Ireland: Children should know how England came together with Wales in the Middle Ages and with Scotland in 1707 as well as gaining some knowledge of relations with Ireland in order "to get a sense of how we have got to where we are and what are the key things in our historical background".

European Catholic Christianity and the Protestant Reformation: How they shaped the way we live and how we defined ourselves through the Reformation.

Christian morality: "It is difficult to really understand one's place as part of a long tradition unless one has some understanding of Christianity."

The Anglo-Saxons: How they and other races populated the British Isles over the centuries.

Artistic and literary heritage: Chaucer, Shakespeare and the 17th-century poets, great musical works and the history of British architecture. Children must gain a sense that they are the heirs to a great tradition.

The Classics, which - like so many of the things which define Englishness - are not English. Children should study ancient Greece and Rome to gain a sense of their European roots and the background European civilisation.

Citizenship: Young adults should understand how the political system works and also be able to take account of the views of others and to engage in debate. Education for citizenship deserves a higher profile.

Traditional dances such as morris dancing, which are already in the music national curriculum.

Flying the flag, which is seen as an important symbol of national identity whether it is the Union Jack or the flag of St George. In comparison with other countries we have very few of these symbols, Dr Tate says.

St George's Day: The celebration of this and of other national anniversaries can help to foster a sense of community and of continuity.

But this business of Englishness keeps coming back to foreigners. Eliot said one should be "classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion". Dr Tate comments: "I think T S Eliot was probably the most profound and the wisest philosopher on cultural matters in the 20th century. I think there are many attractions to the position he defines."

Comments