Does education construct national identity?
The rationale behind the exploration of this question is to examine how responsible the state is to the construction of national identity. There seems to be a conception that the state creates national identity. Mann in Dark Side of Democracy explores the idea of how the state is responsible for the formation of a stratified people, as seen in North America and organic people, as seen in Nazi Germany. A problem that these authors have with these ‘two types of we the people’ defined by Mann is that both are constructions of the state as the state wants its people to be seen. Organic nor do stratified people, in reality, exist. Nevertheless the state is essential in the perception that they do. The question is, therefore, where does this perception come from?
These authors do not wish to tackle Mann, instead it wishes to tackle whether or not education helps to create national identity. This exploration will define the nation as Anderson does: imagined, limited and secular (Anderson: 1991). Print capitalism is one way that allows the nation to imagine itself in this way as it allows individuals to relate and imagine themselves in new ways (1991: 36). This blog will then examine education with print-capitalism in mind, that is, does education work in the same way? And if it does, how influential is it to national identity? And, if it is, how important is it to the construction of national identity?
These authors also understand identity to be formed as Anderson does, that is by comparison to the other. Anderson uses the case of Creole identity to illustrate how the Creole defined themselves against what they were not – not being Spanish. For this reason, the two case studies chosen to compare and contrast is education in England and Scotland. The research will focus on the curriculum up until 16, the age when it is no longer compulsory to attend school. Furthermore, the comparison will look at the content of the syllabus for specific subjects, such as History and Social studies, based on the assumption that these subjects will focus more on the nation than Maths or science will.
The National Curriculum in England
Responding to rallying cries to aid public understanding to the work of schools, to promote continuity and accountability across schools, and support the entitlement for all pupils to access a broad and balanced curriculum- Parliament passed the 1988 Education Reform Act, which established the framework for the National Curriculum. This curriculum was touted to “promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils, and to prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life.” The National Curriculum for England sets out a clear, full and statutory entitlement to learning for all pupils up to the age of 16, except for those students in academies, free schools, and students schooled at home. It determines the content of what will be taught and sets attainment targets for learning. The National Curriculum also determines how performance will be assessed and reported. This structured system follows Key Stages with specific skills or knowledge to be gained at each stage.
According to Professor Audrey Osler, the introduction of the national curriculum by the Conservative government in the 1990s, amid some nationalist overtones, aimed to foster a strong sense of national identity. Although history was a core component of the original curriculum, it was not until the introduction of citizenship as a national curriculum subject in 2002 that any form of explicit civic education was widely practised in English schools. Then-chancellor Gordon Brown stated in a New Year’s Speech in 2006: ‘We should not recoil from our national history, rather we should make it more central to our education. I propose that British history should be given much more prominence in the curriculum, not just dates places and names, nor just a set of unconnected facts, but a narrative that encompasses our history’.
The concept of national identity and the debate that surrounds it is particularly complex in the context of a sovereign state (UK) made up of four separate nations (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). As noted before, the focus of this group was to particularly examine if and how national identities are influenced by what is supposedly taught in both the history and the citizenship components of the curriculum. It must be stated that there may be a difference between what is in the curriculum and what is highlighted and taught in schools. This divergence may be explained by the demographic makeup of the students and administration. It is important though what is stated in the curriculum on a national level.
One of the principal goals of the history curriculum is to “promote individual and national identities by contributing ‘to the development of pupils’ sense of identity through knowledge and understanding of the spiritual, moral, social and cultural heritages of Britain’s diverse society and of the local, national, European, commonwealth and global dimensions of their lives” (NCC, 1999:11/online). However, history curriculum tends to be England focused, reflecting the cultural dominance of the English in the UK. There are very few direct references to the histories of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Island in the curriculum and those included are non-statutory. This exclusion may lead to a more “English” focus in the identity building.
This is also explicit in the citizenship curriculum. There is an expectation that pupils will come to understand and be comfortable with their own identity and the notion of ‘multiple identities’. However, little exploration of this complexity in the resources produced for the Citizenship curriculum are found. According to Ofsted (2006:13) ‘the diversity of national, regional, religious and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom are only rarely deconstructed to explore in any detail what this implies’. According to a diversity in curriculum research survey, the focus of citizenship education was much more globally focused and issues of national identity were often only focused on racial differences, if brought up at all. While race is an important aspect of studying identity building, there are numerous other impacting factors. It is telling that citizenship education in England is lacking in addressing those complexities.
The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence
Education in Scotland has not always been conducive to fostering a sense of national identity. In 1872, Westminster passed the Education (Scotland) Act which resulted in the Scottish school system being restructured so that it was similar to the English school system. Additionally, it removed any Gaelic instruction from the schools and students who were caught speaking it in the classroom would face corporal punishment. As a result of this, there are no monolingual Gaelic speakers in Scotland and as of the 2011 census, only 1.2% (58,652) of the population has Gaelic facilities. It was not until The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Bill was passed in 2005 by the Scottish parliament that Gaelic would officially be part of Scotland’s curriculum once again. The bill also made Gaelic an official language of Scotland and outlined a national plan for its development. The government’s efforts have resulted in a slowing down of the decline of Gaelic speakers.
As history education was not traditionally given any sort of prominence in schools, there was not much time to cover a wide range of events which resulted in lessons often including some sort of major battle. Scottish attitudes in the classroom regarding history bring about a theme of Scotland being oppressed by England. A study of 3000 16-year-old students showed that 34% thought that Scotland became part of the United Kingdom because English forces conquered it (Wood and Payne, 1999). Furthermore, students aged 9-11 in an Edinburgh school were surveyed and found that even at that young age there was still a determination to separate Scottish identity from British identity and distaste for the term ‘British’ to be used interchangeably with ‘English’, (Carrington & Short, 1996) .
The Scottish parliament has recently created Education Scotland along with the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) to address the concerns of requiring such specific assessments in the curriculum. The CfE replaces the conventional example of a national curriculum and is described by the SNP as ‘[focusing] on the traditional Scottish system of a broad education, tailored to children and including as its aims building confidence and citizenship.’ In another comment regarding the difference with the CfE as opposed to the more traditional, English curriculum it was said: ‘The great strength of CfE is that it encourages innovation in learning and discretion for teachers, which is quite different from south of the Border, where teachers have been very constrained by testing.’ The CfE does not assess students at Key Stages and instead outlines what the ‘outcomes and experiences’ students should have on completion of a certain unit as outlined by the ‘principles and practices’ followed by the teachers. Common criticisms of the CfE are that it is too vague and without assessments the teachers are left confused as to what their objectives are in teaching.
Overall, the CfE includes many instances of language that emphasises Scottish national identity in particular. A common phrase in the ‘experience and outcomes’ portion of the CfE is that ‘Learning in the subject will enable me to develop my understanding of the history, heritage and culture of Scotland, and an appreciation of my local and national heritage within the world.’ Moreover, the social studies section in the CfE explains that through the curriculum, ‘children and young people’s experiences will be broadened using Scottish, British, European and wider contexts for learning, while maintaining a focus on the historical, social, geographic, economic and political changes that have shaped Scotland.’
We have found that both curriculums aim to mould a sense of national identity. The English curriculum however, differs slightly from the Scottish version due to the lack of essence of Englishness in the text, whereas Scottishness is prevalent throughout the Scottish curriculum. An interesting discovery with regards to England was that it only chose to differ identities on race. It does not account for those different nationalities within Britain, it rather assumes them all to be one. That being said the focus in England is on England and how others react to it or relate to it, although inadvertently. Here there is a clear sense that education does help to construct identity. Perhaps then it is of no surprise that the Scottish curriculum tells us a similar story. Scotland focuses on Scotland, but interestingly as a victim. The interviews of Scottish children very much agree with this idea, and perhaps shows the dramatic impact that education has on identity. To go off on a slight tangent and bring it back to England, how else would this Englishman have the horrific misconception that Scottish people are angry drunkards!? Nothing could be further from the truth. Never have I felt so much hospitality and politeness than when interacting with the Scottish. This misconception was also believed by my English friend and then rectified on her recent visit to Scotland. Is it possible that this misconception comes from the English education system? That history and social studies in England are taught in such a way that highlight the strengths of England – the centre of Britain, and plays down the importance, differences and intricacies of its neighbours? The point here is that a perception has been fed to ill informed youths, and perhaps that perception is from education and those teachers with an agenda to teach in a methodology that is wished by the government. This is made clear by the different methods found in England and Scotland – England being rigid, whereas Scotland is more flexible – perhaps with a stronger emphasis on Scottish culture.