After seven years of upheaval following the introduction of the national curriculum, teachers have been promised a five-year moratorium on further curriculum changes. Dr Nicholas Tate, the chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, made the same reassuring noises in a recent after-dinner speech to headteachers in Shropshire. One suspects he did not expect his talk to be reported on the front page of the Daily Mail, with the the headline "Teach them to be British" splashed above a story suggesting he wants children of all cultural or ethnic backgrounds to be taught what it means to be British.
The issues raised by Dr Tate cannot be reduced to facile nationalistic slogans. Though the dust may be settling on the national curriculum, he argues that there are important questions still to be debated. The first is how the curriculum can foster pupils' cultural literacy and sense of identity; and the second is how it can contribute to their moral education. He regards the two issues as "obviously linked". He is right, though the link is not necessarily obvious at first sight. The common thread is rapid social change, which erodes identities and moralities.
Societies undergoing rapid change use schools as special agents of cultural transmission, because in periods of transition the family and the community cannot be trusted with this task. Thus Communist countries used schools to inculcate Marxist-Leninist ideology. In this they merely mirrored fascist states with their myths of racial purity as the foundation of national identity. In Britain today cultural and national identity becomes an educational issue precisely because its meaning has become more obscure and other means of nurturing it are failing or in conflict.
The problems have two main sources: the significant numbers of ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities that are now part of British society, and the possible threat to British identity posed by membership of a more integrated Europe. Dr Tate faces the first issue head-on - but ducks the second, which is more politically controversial. We do not, he says, want to bring people together in a sort of watered-down multi-culturalism in which we become consumers choosing a culture as easily as buying a shirt or choosing a hairstyle.
True enough, but what nature of culture should we teach in school? Dr Tate speaks vaguely of the sense of common culture and national identity being a central thread in the curriculum, but the problem is that nobody - including Dr Tate - is very sure what it consists of and to what degree it should be the same for all children, whatever their background. The debate over how much British history should be taught in schools indicated this lack of consensus. If there was some national agreement on what British culture and identity consists of, one might reasonably expect schools to teach it. But there is not, and we are in danger of asking teachers to solve a problem that everybody else ignores as being too difficult.
If there is poor practise in schools in relation to multicultural education, if schools are rife with the post-modernism and "relativism" of which Dr Tate complains, it is not because teachers have neglected their responsibilities. On the contrary: teachers recognise that children come with a wide variety of cultural, linguistic and religious traditions. These need to be respected, sustained, built upon and shared with the whole school if children are to grow into people proud of their own distinctiveness and tolerant of other people's distinctiveness. They have been seeking a national identity that does not involve the annulment of other loyalties.
Teachers have received astonishingly little official help in devising ways of preparing people for a pluralistic society in which they share a national identity and some common ethical and civic values. In a society like Japan, national identity means, for the vast majority of the population, being of the same ethnic origin, speaking the same language and sharing common cultural values. Japan takes strong measures to protect this state of affairs, caring little for the fact that outsiders accuse them of xenophobia and racism.
Acting like the Japanese is no longer an option for Britain. Simplistic conceptions of national identity came to an end in 1945, whatever some newspapers might prefer. Our task is to debate a definition of being British. It must be along the lines of diversity in ethnicity, culture, language and religion. Our capacity to create a pluralistic society - in harmony and in a distinctive way because of our particular mix - is the essence of being British. A society of communities with firmly held but different cultural values inevitably means that we share fewer core cultural values than in the past.
It does not mean pupils should not read Dickens or Austen; it means in addition they read Salman Rushdie, Timothy Mo and Caryl Phillips. Just as our language has gained its enormously rich vocabulary because it is a mongrel language, so our literature will, like our food habits, become the finer as we enlarge the menu. Diversity need not divide. As the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, has observed, we are now too diverse to allow a single morality to be legislated, and there must be another way of providing the core values that bind us into a cohesive nation. Without such cohesion there can be neither the national identity nor the moral foundations of society after which Dr Tate yearns.
There is a limit to pressures to enlarge the curriculum and the 1988 Education Reform Act compounded the problem by strengthening the position of religious education in schools. In a multi-faith society in which religious education is non-doctrinal, the pressure towards a pick'n'mix syllabus is perhaps inevitable. But religion is something to be lived, not just learnt.The best way to improve moral education would be to abolish religious education in state schools, since for many people religion is not the basis of their morality and ethics. In its place we must develop a moral, ethical and civic education which could be genuinely held in common by people from different faiths and cultures and (unlike RE) preached and practised by all teachers.
Contrary to the impression given in some headlines, Dr Tate claims no easy answers. But let us stop pretending there is to be a moratorium on curriculum change and instead accept Dr Tate's challenge to debate - set in the wider context of our relationship to Europe, which sheds new light on all our identities. Until we have national agreement on the way forward, teachers and students must be part of the debate rather than a simplistic solution.
The writer is professor of education at the University of Cambridge.