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“Britishness” in the National Conversation

The Life in the UK test, Citizenship Lessons, and the History Curriculum

By June Bam-Hutchinson

Introduction by Helen Weinstein

As part of its ongoing work on National Identity and Belongingness, IPUP has commissioned the following paper by Research Associate June Bam-Hutchinson. The paper examines the use of “citizenship” in UK education and immigration policies over the last twenty years, and explores links between these developments and those in history teaching. At the close of her passionately-argued piece, June offers her perspective upon current developments under the new Coalition Government.


Whilst there has been some progress in recognising the diversity of a UK which numbers amongst its residents and citizens millions of people from former colonies, national identity remains a difficult issue. This paper examines the use of “Britishness” in public discourse in the UK over the last fifteen years. It takes as its case-studies the history and citizenship curricula in schools, and the Life in the UK test, introduced for applicants for British citizenship in 2002. These are analysed as deterministic instruments for inculcating “good” and “responsible citizenship” in all citizens. The Life in the UK test, it will be argued, focuses too heavily on an uncomplicated celebration of British (imperial) achievement, and works more to exclude than to welcome. Statements on education policy by the current government suggest a desire to return to a similar agenda in the history classroom, reversing the move towards a more pluralistic and inclusive approach.


  1. A Brief History of Citizenship Education in the UK
  2. Developments under New Labour
  3. Some recent debates around citizenship and citizenship education
  4. Debates on the place of history education
  5. Citizenship, Citizenship Education and Oppositional Historiography
  6. The Citizenship Test and its interpretation of the history of Empire
  7. The Citizenship Test, Britishness and Belonging
  8. The emerging grand narrative of Empire for School History and its implications for Belonging and Citizenship

A Brief History of Citizenship Education in the UK

Citizenship and Citizenship Education are complex and fluctuating constructs.1 Alhough it has become associated with New Labour in the UK, its history goes back to school textbooks used during the reign of Elizabeth I “which extolled the military prowess of the English”.2 Pressure groups for citizenship education in the UK also have a long history, from the Association for Citizenship Education, founded in 1934, to the present-day Coalition of Citizenship Organisations, a lobby of pressure groups and organisations. It is believed that the Curriculum transformations of the late 1990s to include citizenship education were much informed by international democracy campaigns and successes in former colonies like South Africa.3

In 1990, the Commission on Citizenship published a report, Encouraging Citizenship, which made recommendations for facilitating citizenship in schools,6 and the National Curriculum Council responded with guidance for schools on “participative citizenship”.7 Associations between citizenship, “community participation” and “volunteering” emerged within political discourse.8 Through the National Curriculum, schools were to be the sites for citizenship training.9 The Speaker's Commission on Citizenship was established in 1990.10 In 1991, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was ratified in the UK, with particular discussion of Article 1 on the rights of the child to participate in decision-making processes affecting her / his life.11 Bernard Weatherill, then-Speaker of the House of Commons, founded the Institute for Citizenship in 1992.12 At this time, citizenship education was introduced as a non-statutory cross theme in the curriculum, which legally meant teachers could be flexible about how and where it was taught in school, or if it was taught at all.

Developments under New Labour

In 1997, Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett set up the Advisory Group on Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools, under the chairmanship of Professor Bernard Crick, his former university professor, friend and mentor.

The Advisory Group reported in September 1998, proposing that Citizenship Education should be a statutory part of the curriculum, and not left to “uncoordinated local initiatives”.13 The report spoke of active citizenship, rights and responsibilities, and of the need to encourage the development of “politically literate” young people with the “knowledge, values and skills” to be informed and active in society – including party-political participation.14 Similarities in the need for citizenship education were identified in the USA, Australia and Canada, and – in wider political discourse – with post-apartheid South Africa.15 Crick recommended three strands of citizenship education: social and moral responsibility (with particular reference to “those in authority”), political literacy (that is, involvement in political institutions and processes) and community involvement. The Advisory Group believed that citizenship education in schools should develop an understanding of “moral values” in a “pluralistic and democratic society”. inclusive of “mutual respect in communities”, “respect for authority”, learning what is right and wrong, making informed choices, community involvement, voluntary work, and for “political literacy” as preparation for “participation in public life”.16 Crick is said to have been much influenced by T.H. Marshall's theory of citizenship originally published in 1950, which views citizenship as a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community (and therefore not one that fosters equality).17 The Crick report identified the concepts and values to underpin citizenship education, which included diversity, legal and human rights, rights and responsibilities, power and authority, and freedom and order. The report has been criticised, however, for a lack of commitment to human rights as a framework of analysis, including only a weaker “concern for human rights”.18

The government responded to the report with the revised 1999 National Curriculum, which emphasised “civic, moral and social” aims. At the heart of this curriculum were “values” and “Subject Orders”.19 National Curriculum 2000 (based on the revised 1999 curriculum) focused on student fulfilment, with a concern for learners to gain knowledge, skills and attitudes for their “self-fulfilment” and development as “responsible citizens”.

Notably, at the time, there was a government commitment to the “global dimension of citizenship in schools” – in the context of relations between the UK and the European Union, United Nations, and the Commonwealth – and to working with the Department for International Development (DfiD) and the Development Education Association. It was expected that Citizenship Education would be rolled out “more comprehensively” across Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland than in England.20 No explanation given for this priority, beyond stating that citizenship education was more recently introduced in England.

A Citizenship Education Working Party was set up by New Labour in 2001. Citizenship education and a Citizenship Order (which included knowledge and understanding to become informed citizens; skills of enquiry and communication; skills of participation and responsible action) were incorporated into the curriculum as a statutory requirement from September 2002 for all secondary schools, as part of the Active Citizens in Schools agenda and as an extension of the Millennium Volunteers21 programme to 13 – 16 year olds.22 Citizenship was introduced in schools on the basis of findings that people were becoming less interested in politics and local government, and distrustful of politicians. There was a particular declining trend in electoral process and Citizenship Education was seen under New Labour as a statutory intervention to address this political “crisis” of indifference.

By 2006, there were increasing efforts to bring “Britishness”, identity and “values” closer to the history curriculum with then-Chancellor Gordon Brown giving a New Year's speech on “Who do you want to be? The future of Britishness” to the Fabian Society.24 It was a speech about “British values”.25 Notably, Brown focused on the aspiration of becoming British in the future, instead of foregrounding existent identity or complexities. At the same time, an emerging discourse began to develop around the celebration of “British values” as “shared”. In the same speech, Brown asked for the teaching of British history to promote these values – through a “golden thread” (i.e. a grand narrative)26 in which citizenship values are centrally rooted:…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 unnconnected facts, but a narrative that encompasses our history. And because citizenship is still taught too much in isolation, I suggest in the current review of the curriculum that we look at how we root the teaching of citizenship more closely in history. And we should encourage volunteers to be more involved. To help schools bring alive the idea of citizenship with real engagement in the community.27

Increasingly, prominent New Labour politicians were linking “community cohesion” with citizenship education, “active and participatory citizenship”, and a “shared national identity”, linking “Britishness” with a “proud history” (Gordon Brown, for instance, specifically mentioned Britain's role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in his Fabian Society speech)28, and with diversity and identity. 29

Against this background, and in the wake of the July 2005 bombings, Sir Keith Ajegbo was commissioned in 2006 to review the curriculum in terms of the needs of “diversity” in schools, to improve community relations in Britain by tackling school education. Ajegbo is a UK citizen of Nigerian descent, a retired head teacher, and advisor to the Home Office with a strong reputation with the teaching of citizenship education in his former school in East London. He has also served as a trustee for the Stephen Lawrence Trust.33 Ajegbo's Advisory Group was comprised three people, himself, Dr Dina Kiwan (of Birckbeck who worked with Sir Bernard Crick as a colleague and on the “Life in the UK” Advisory Group) and Seema Sharma, a school colleague of Ajegbo. On the announcement of this research, Boris Johnson, then Shadow Education Secretary, called for the teaching of “history” not “values”, and for not shirking from celebrating British “achievement” through history teaching.(BBC News, 15 May 2006)30

In 2007 the recommendations of Ajegbo's Diversity and Citizenship Review Report with regards to the school curriculum were published.32 The Ajegbo Report focuses particularly on the incorporation of history in the curriculum.34

The Ajegbo Report had recommended a History and Citizenship GSCE, and a stronger focus on values in history teaching, a recognition the value of enquiry skills, and an acknowledgement of “identities as multiple and plural”. It also called for a problematising approach to what “Britishness” entails, and for historical understanding in citizenship education. The report, which was based on research in classrooms and communities, also pointed to a worrying ignorance and reliance on stereotypes about global issues, particularly with regard to Asia (presented in the classroom as constantly “flooded”) and Africa (presented as subject to constant “poverty” and ”famine”).35 The report recommended a fourth strand in citizenship education in schools and across the curriculum: “Identity and Belonging: Living together in the UK” and highlighted the problem of racism as part of “identity”. It also emphasised the importance of learning about and understanding equality legislation in the UK, with a historic focus.

In 2007, the bicentenary of the commemoration of the Slave Trade was the trigger for much reflection on identity, diversity and citizenship. In the Department of Local Government and Communities' report on the commemorations – The Way Forward36 – Prime Minister Tony Blair's Message made a statement on the shared history of the slave trade. A commitment was also made that year by government to the future national commemoration of 23 August as Unesco's international day for the commemoration of the slave trade, and to tackling poverty as one of its legacies.

“Britishness”, identity, the school curriculum, the place and nature of history and “values” became the subject of hot debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, building up to the elections in 2010. In the House of Lords debate on “Britishness” in 2008, Lord Giddens (a leading sociologist working on the issue of identity and post modernism) stated that Britishness is “elusive, essential identity which does not really exist”.38

Some recent debates around citizenship and citizenship education

There have been many critiques of what is understood as “citizenship” and “citizenship education”, as it can by seting alienating norms define who is “in” and who is “out”. It is not necessarily about equality, diversity and inclusion – indeed, it is widely believed amongst practising educators that citizenship education and notions of “citizenship” can agitate precisely the opposite, and often do. (Osler and Starkey, 2010)

In his critique of Marshall's 1950 theory of citizenship, which has informed New Labour's 21st century policy and its mandatory citizenship test under Blunkett , Delanty (2000) makes the point that space is no longer dominated by the “space of the state”, and points to “the break up of national society as the codifier of social space as modernity involved the dislocation of place and space”. Contemporary societies are “communication societies” in which “ideology has become refracted through the prism of identity”. There are “new kinds of binary opposites of new otherness. It is widely believed that the new “otherness” can include interpretations of global attitudes towards those with AIDS, those who live with threatened natural resources and environments, those who are associated with political extremism and pathological poverty.39

In contrast to what is perceived to be happening globally in terms of the perceived fragility of the nation state and the proliferation of many contesting, diverse and new identities, the 2008 National Curriculum (based on the 2002 framework) is very much concerned with the national and the promotion of a “patriotic identity”. It states that citizenship education equips young people with the “knowledge, skill and understanding” to play an effective role in “public life” (local, national politics).40 In current UK curriculum policy, citizenship education is localised national education.

Osler and Starkey (2005) argue that citizenship (and citizenship education) is a site of political struggle, that citizenship is in fact about “feeling of belonging to a community”, and that this feeling of belonging and identity can also be global – unlike the stance promoted by New Labour. They argue (in Gearon, 2010) that citizenship education can also be alienating within an ever increasing world of globalisation and migration, when it excludes sites of learning for citizenship within diaspora (rather than narrowly defined national) communities. They therefore locate their approach to a “cosmopolitan citizenship” within the context of key turning points in British society, pointing to the importance of a broader more inclusive identity for peace and justice in society, such as came to light with the coining of “institutional racism” through the Macpherson Report of 1999 on the Stephen Lawrence murder. One of its seventy recommendations called for a “consideration of a revised national curriculum to prevent racism and value cultural diversity”.41

It is common knowledge that racism is closely linked to ignorance about global issues and ill-informed attitudes towards “foreigners”; people perceived not “to belong” in a certain geographical space. Global Education has therefore also often been used by practitioners as an opportunity over the last decade to tackle racism.42 Though the two are often confused and conflated, Citizenship Education has been criticised as being “less political” than Global Education (which deals with issues of global poverty, the environment, fair trade for instance) and as a safer option. In the UK, under New Labour, the Department for International Development (DfiD) was given responsibility for school linking on global issues (Davies and Reid 2005). Global Development Education NGOs in the UK are perceived to be amongst those most likely under threat of recent planned cuts announced by the new Coalition government in opening the debate on global poverty on 1 July 2010, to cut “unnecessary” DfiD projects in favour of receiving “value for money” and “measurable results”.43 It was also announced by the Secretary of International Development, Andrew Mitchell (a former businessman with a strong interest in trade), that he has taken the decision that funding for projects that promote global “awareness” should be cut, especially those that are about culture and diversity. Labour MP David Lammy (for Tottenham, who has grown up in the inner city of London as a black boy) responded that these cuts were marginalising ethnic minorities and young people and asked for sensitivity and caution on these issues and decisions.

Some of the recent debates on the place of history education

The place of history in society and in education has been a subject of significant contestation in the Western world over the last two decades. It has been asked in these debates how relevant is history in society, and particularly school history, and whether history teaching has a function in providing an agency for national consciousness, patriotism and the development of good and informed citizenship. Similarly, in the past decade, the question has been asked in some rightist circles in the USA whether history teaching is of any relevance at all. There have therefore been in such societies campaigns to reduce the level of history teaching in schools. (Giroux 1997).

As citizenship education gained an increasing prominent and centre role in British society under David Blunkett around 2000, the discourse in the UK has been about the “relevance of school history to critical thinking”, and a “critical citizenship”. The discourse on the relevance of history teaching over the past decade in the UK has come from both the rightist and leftists perspectives in the UK, with radically different languages of articulation and purpose.

The UK has a long tradition of critical pedagogy in history, which strongly informs the current discourse on critical citizenship. It is popularly understood and argued academically that without understanding history there can be no critical engagement of the past, nor the present - with the assumption that this understanding impacts on the future. Tosh (1991) therefore speaks of the “uses of history” as important in the development of identity, of the importance of the work of historians and the “training of critical faculties” and to help to “critically engage with current affairs”.

The discourse on history teaching and its symbiotic relationship with debates on “good citizenship”, as “informed critical citizenship”, can be traced back to the New History Movement in the UK in the middle of the last century.44 This movement emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s, with the aim of inculcating a “new philosophy” of history education in schools, and of reconsidering the “place of history” in schools, as an approach to knowledge rather than a “body of content”.45 Educationalists and historians argued for understanding historical method and enquiry, and on “learning by experiencing” and by extensive use of sources of evidence to help pupils to arrive at a variety of views on historical events and situations.46 Skills of comprehension, judgement, extrapolation, synthesis and evaluation, it was argued, constituted “critical thinking” to help students “to understand the world in which they live” and to provide them with an understanding of the coherent link between the past, present and future.47

It was argued that if one particular presentation of the past were dominant in school history pupils would be denied the opportunity to fully understand the world in which they live, and thus denied their right to be properly informed and educated. Worst of all, those on the periphery would find in their history lessons no experience or tradition with which to identify; they would be denied a place in history.

The New History Movement emphasised the importance of “doing history” rather than the memorisation of facts, with an emphasis on key understandings and pedagogical underpinnings. It highlighted the need to understand the world in which we live; the need to find one's personal identity by widening one's experience through the study of people of a different time and place; the need to understand the process of change and continuity and the need to develop the ability to think critically, and to make judgements about human situations. Such learning and structure of the history curriculum would of necessity be informed by an “open-ended structure of learning and curriculum design”, to counter the dated view that history is a body of established and indisputable facts.48 Students would be encouraged to explore the difficulties and uncertainties that relate to historical knowledge. Much was about interpretation of evidence, and allowing room for a variety of views. Understanding the question, “What is History?”49 would therefore be important, as an important foundation for school history. Conceptual understandings would also be important.(Dickenson et al. 1984).

The New History method has been used to teach an informed citizenship education in schools in the UK for many years as it has all the elements of “understanding issues” today. History education's importance for citizenship has been recognised by many scholars over the last decade ( Gearon 2010). It is being said that “history education is very close to citizenship education” because the meanings and purposes ascribed to the teaching and learning of citizenship and history are very similar.

But it is also recognised that this link between Citizenship Education and School History is not without its problems. With the emergence of citizenship education in the UK over the past two decades, there have been the assumption that there is a positive correlation between “becoming a responsible citizen” and the curriculum.

Gearon (2010) contends that the overlap between history and citizenship education is both on the level of content and skills. In this sense, citizenship education follows the New History movement in aiming to foster “critical enquiry”. The Diversity and Citizenship Curriculum Review under Agjebo in 2007 also commented upon the perceived symbiotic relationship between history education and citizenship education, making reference to understanding “through the lens of history”, placing citizenship “at its core”.50

However, Citizenship Education as “issue-based education” has been under attack by Gearon (2010) and others, who argue that the “constant diet of crisis of war, famine and injustice” may be “alienating” to some pupils.

The secondary curriculum for key stages 3 and 4 was first published by the QCA in 2007, and was implemented in 2008 “to face a fast changing world”. The 11-19 curriculum is intended, amongst other things, to help learners to become “responsible citizens”. Citizenship and History are distinct subjects in the curriculum with the former exploring topical and “controversial issues” through discussion and debate. Citizenship education emphasises rights, responsibilities, duties, freedoms, laws, justice and democracy to help pupils to play an active role in communities as “global citizens”. Pupils are taught the skills and understandings to be able to respect national, religious and ethnic identities and to understand how society is changing in the UK, in Europe and the World. The aim is to get pupils to be able to understand social justice, human rights and “community cohesion” and to explore opinions and ideas other than their own.

The skills crucial to the New History methodology also creep into the Citizenship curriculum: evaluation of evidence and judgement of events and human situations. The language of a “critical citizenship” is used, to “make a difference in the world”. The current statutory content of the History curriculum is aimed at helping students form their own identities through an understanding of history at personal, local, national and international levels. Amongst the standard history skills (chronology, change and continuity, cause and consequence, interpretation) is included the key conceptual understanding of “cultural, ethnic and religious diversity”.51

The History Curriculum in Key Stages 3 and 4 includes a study of the political and cultural achievements of the Islamic States from 600 to 1600. Key content includes the two World Wars, the Holocaust, other genocides (optional) and the role of European and international institutions in resolving conflict. The curriculum emphasises exploring the history of ordinary people and their beliefs and views, and includes also the slave trade and the role of both Equiano and Wilberforce, and the Civil Rights Movement in the USA (the latter being optional).

The current curriculum makes explicit links between the History Curriculum and citizenship education, and suggests opportunities between the two for exploring identities in a “multi-ethnic” Britain. Family, personal, and local histories are encouraged with an appreciation of museums, galleries, archives, ICT and heritage sites. The curriculum signposts “the importance of providing pupils with the opportunities to explore ways in which the past has helped shape identities, shared cultures, values and attitudes today”.

The process of education, of knowledge and identity formation and their links to history teaching and the curriculum (as distinctly separate though interrelated entities) in the ever increasing globalised world of shifting spaces and places is of course far more complex within the post-modernist present and still a subject of ongoing research globally.

Citizenship, Citizenship Education and Oppositional Historiography

Schools have been clearly identified as political sites by reproduction theorists over the last three decades (Aronovitz and Giroux 1985, and others) – with the recognition of the suppressive role of language and “knowledge” in the process of society “reproducing” its power relations in the economy, in the dominant culture and politically. Theorists have argued that in this process, the social and cultural capital that marginalised groups bring into society gets suppressed. Others such as Young (1976) have argued the contrary: that schools have a limited role to play in society – that much of how we understand ourselves, the world around us, and our place in society is informed by what takes place at home, in families, in faith groups and so on. Yet the increasing literature and predominance of discourse on citizenship and school education in the last decade in the UK suggests a belief to the contrary; that there is a correlation between what happens politically (government policy) and what happens in the school curriculum and in the classroom.

Globally, such as in countries like South Africa, Australia and Canada, discourse on citizenship education and the place of historical understanding is located increasingly within an International Rights Framework of the Human Rights Act and the UNESCO Framework of 1995. It is about using education for peace and justice, to respect diversity, heritage and the environment.

In critically examining the discourse around the role of history in society, and also school history, scholars have explored the impact of self-knowledge, experiential knowledge, historical consciousness and self knowledge as linked to individual agency and as inherently existent within communities and individuals, as independent of the national social engineering programmes which inform discourse around citizenship and its assumed links to history teaching and citizenship tests (Collins 1991). The very early work of Aronowitz and Giroux (1975) on knowledge, power and education is well known; that what counts as valid, worthwhile or legitimate knowledge in society is closely linked to who is in power and how that power is enforced politically.

The debates over the last three decades highlight the fact that the national discourse on the role of history teaching, citizenship and knowledge validation is essentially a political one, not educational or academic. The discourse on critical pedagogy, the writing and dissemination of history, the practice of history teaching and of what a critical citizenship entails, is located not only at research institutions at universities, but more profoundly in public history spaces such as museums, theatre, cultural forums, and within oppositional history activists groups as part of the ongoing dynamic existence of society quite independently of the national agenda and discourse.

In community sites of black history movements such as the Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA) in the UK, the history curriculum and citizenship education have always been viewed with suspicion and as essentially alienating.52 These sites, of alternative and oppositional identity formation within diasporic African and Asian communities within the UK, promote an understanding of history education as essential to post-colonial liberation and embedded within Frantz Fanon’s notion of what real liberation means – i.e the notion of a certain “counter memory”53, that which we need in order to challenge colonial thinking and understanding also popularly interpreted as not only confined to former colonies, but also within the former Empire.54

Osler and Starkey (2005) illustrate in their work on democracy and inclusion in education that citizenship (and education) can serve to unite a diverse population, or to marginalise and exclude. They argue for the development of the concept of a “cosmopolitan and inclusive citizenship”, as part of the discourse on the right to education as practising citizenship. This is, to them, the only way in which anti-racism can be mainstreamed as a non-negotiable aspect of education. Their works and writings are founded upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UNICEF’S Convention on the Rights of the Child. These are cited as essential starting points for teaching about citizenship and fostering diverse identities in a society.

The current curriculum is evidently the outcome of a number of things: amongst others, pressure campaigns in citizenship, the recommendations in the 1999 Mcpherson report, New Labour policy for community cohesion, rights and responsibilities, David Blunkett's Citizenship Test, debates in 2007 during the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and also of black historiography opposition groups such as BASA in the UK.

BASA has itself made a series of high level representations to government policy makers and implementation bodies, particularly with regards to history teaching, from 1991 to the present. They have highlighted various deficiencies and flaws in the curriculum such as the omission of the history of black people; the distorted representation of black people in school history textbooks; the need for mandatory monitoring of the teaching of the sensitive and often misguided aspects “cultural, ethnic and religious diversity”.55 More recently, they have raised concerns about the need for research into low performance of African Caribbean boys and how this relates to the content of the national curriculum and the inclusion of racism in schemes of work prepared for teachers.56

The Citizenship Test and its interpretation of the history of Empire

There are the assumptions that political and educational agencies (whatever their political leanings) have the desired effective impact of their intentions, as socially and politically deterministic in their ability to oppress or transform individuals who bring biographies of all kinds of identities relating to faith, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, second life, real life, virtual life, mobile communication technologies, music, place, space, or whatever. Identity is in fact constantly negotiated and variable, differently articulated within given moments. It is highly unlikely that it can be “measured”.

There are the assumptions that political and educational agencies (whatever their political leanings) have the desired effective impact of their intentions, as socially and politically deterministic in their ability to oppress or transform individuals who bring biographies of all kinds of identities relating to faith, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, second life, real life, virtual life, mobile communication technologies, music, place, space, or whatever. Identity is in fact constantly negotiated and variable, differently articulated within given moments. It is highly unlikely that it can be “measured”.

Britain is currently made up of a diverse group of people from oppositional historiographical traditions (who may be located in community sites such as BASA), and within the diaspora communities from the Commonwealth and former colonies. Many of these citizens in the UK are rooted in anti-colonial struggles and community sites of oppositional historiography. The emergence of a citizenship test in 2000 under New Labour and the recent coalition government argument for a “detailed history” with a “Eurocentric” focus in schools in the UK, of a “glorious past” of “achievement” should be critically reviewed within this historical context.57

The work of historians such as Colley (1992), Haseler (1996) expose the fallacy of this false sense of national identity in British history; it was always constructed, unstable and changing. Much has been written about the black presence in Britain since the time of Roman occupation, that black people were in Britain before the English, and that there is indeed a 400 year history of Asians in Britain.58

Historians refer therefore to the “pathological chronology” in the grand narrative of British history, which inaccurately highlights 1948 as a turning point in the black presence and of diversity in Britain.59 It is viewed as a distortion of British history, as much in the way as the focus on 1652 was viewed in apartheid-taught South African History (i.e. the empty land theory that when whites arrived in southern Africa, the land was empty and the presence of black people was a later development coinciding with the movement of whites to the north; whites therefore had inalienable ownership rights to the land in the south, at the Cape). South Africa's history was therefore written in apartheid school history texts as starting in 1652, with the “empty land”, similar to writings in the UK that would distort the black presence in Britain before 1948.

Because of the emergent emphasis on the teaching of the achievements of Empire under the Coalition government, and also linking that to “citizenship”, of relevance here is the tradition of oppositional historiography within Empire itself.

Already in 1969, British historians, Thompson and Wilson, wrote the seminal “The Oxford History of South Africa”, about the need “to break away from previous works which concentrated on the achievements of whites and their relations to one another”.4 The work was aimed at breaking away from English historians which showed sympathy to the policies of the British government, of missionaries and liberals in former colonies. Thompson and Wilson were responding arguably to works by Empire historians a half a century earlier, such as typically reflected in a British school geography textbook of 1899 for use by school pupils in England, written by Meiklejohn.5 The text focused on the achievements of Empire, with colonial people as insignificant defeated inhabitants in the big story of victory of Empire in the former colonies. This was the nature of education in Empire during the Victorian era at the time of the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902).

At the time of the revisionist new writing within Empire during the 1960s60, communist historians such as Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill grappled with the themes of social and economic change, the issue of class in British society.61 Community history, or history on the ground has been recognised in writings already earlier in the pre-Marxist period in the 18th century, already detected in the work during the Age of Enlightenment (1715-1789), and in work such as J.J. Rousseau's speaking of “the will of the people”(1762).64 Nationalism was a later development, an early 19th century post-Napoleonic phenomenon. Already early on, today's burning questions were asked: Who is the nation? Who are the people? Notions of “majoritarian history”, populist history, “history from below” pre-dates Marxism as a 19th century intellectual tradition, and indeed also revisionist historiography. British historians like G.Rude (The crowd in the French Revolution, 1967)65 were well-known people's historians of their time in Empire, bringing the history closer to people's lives. This laid the foundation for a tradition in which “the people” increasingly become writers of history, writing about their own experiences as active participants in history. Historical knowledge became more accessible beyond the elite.

People's history gained the status as “oppositional history”, such as the British History Workshop Movement of the late 1960s, involving worker historians, working class people and others at the margins within the context of post World War Two Europe and as former colonies gained and consolidated their independence. The evidence of a shift towards “the people” in a Marxist analysis was, however, much earlier in Empire, such as through the works of Bunting, Andrews and Roux in the 1920s and the 1940s writing about class struggles in former colonies such as South Africa66, linking those to the struggle against the British Empire. Examples of seminal historiographical oppositional work in Empire within this tradition are “The role of missionaries in conquest” (Taylor, 1952), “Three Hundred Years” (Jaffe, 1952), “The contribution of the non-Europeans to world civilisation” (Jaffe, 1952). These were early protest histories written in response to celebrating three hundred years of white rule in South Africa, which included a critical response to the British Empire and its subjugation of black South Africans in the colonies, countering assumptions of cultural and racial superiority and questioning liberal measures introduced, such as Ordinance 50 as a new form of slavery (after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807) and the economic aim of the various Peace Treaties, linking these to the ironic introduction of segregation laws. Yet, oppositional historiography within Empire goes back much earlier to the works of African people such as Sol Plaatje who wrote at the turn of the nineteenth century (and first published in 1916) on the devastating effects on African people of the 1913 Native Land Act introduced by the Union government.67

A similar situation of glorifying the past, as currently emerging in Britain, emerged in post-Vietnam America, with historians actively writing about and disseminating a critique of the dominant version of “a glorious American history”. Intellectuals and activists were engaging in a more public history, to which a wider group of people could have access and in which more people could participate to tell their narratives and share their analyses as alternatives to the enforced grand narrative.68

The value of the multiplicity of perspectives in history has always been clearly understood and acknowledged in 20th century British historiography and education. Since independence, post-colonial societies have actively engaged in alternative written oppositional historiography projects, building on ancient oral traditions, testimony, African intellectual writings of the 19th and early 20th centuries, pride in heritage sites such as Great Zimbabwe. These projects have used history and people's sense of heritage and identity to undermine the colonial psychology of dependence, inferiority and subservience in the Western-perceived “big game of history”.69 Zimbabwe, is a notable example: after the end of colonialism, there was a need to write new histories for the people in southern Africa, to dispel Eurocentric myths by British coloniser, Cecil John Rhodes, and others that Great Zimbabwe was not built by the indigenous people but by the Phoenecians, and that there were no early civilisations in Africa prior to colonialism; or that Africa had no history prior to the arrival of whites. These distortions in colonial history are well known.

Revisionist historiography of the 1970s and 1980s emphasised agency within Empire, of people and communities “shaping their own history”. Historical writing within Empire gravitated towards the E.P. Thompson tradition of writing “history from below”, about writing about ordinary people and not the “big men” that make history – but rather about oral testimony and autobiographies.

Oppositional British historiography thus undoubtedly had a significant impact on some historiographical traditions globally, and especially within certain anti-colonial scholarly spaces within Empire itself.

The Citizenship Test, Britishness and Belonging

In 2001 David Blunkett was appointed Home Secretary, and brought from his previous role a concern with “belonging” and “Britishness”. The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, amended the Act of 1981 to include a requirement that applicants had “sufficient knowledge of life in the UK.” This increasing emphasis on Britishness, belonging, identity and values over the last ten years has coincided strongly with the creation of the “other” in foreign policy and with the invasion of Iraq. A strong national, rather than global, identity has been aggressively encouraged. A more recent development , since 2006, has been a call for a more focused core grand narrative of British history and achievements. This has come at a time when Britain under New Labour has been pursuing an increasingly aggressive foreign policy (invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan), and – more recently – been experiencing the commonly known morally devastating economic recession.

Citizenship tests are currently the subject of ubiquitous anti-immigrant daily right wing media agitating against “foreigners” in a recession Europe, and are also the subject of great academic and civic debate.70 Formal assessments now form part of the application process for naturalisation in many parts of the world, and the practice is growing.71 By late 2007, such formal tests had been introduced in a number of Western countries including former very diverse Eastern bloc countries with recent conflict histories and as recently occupied post Soviet nation states, such as Latvia.

In the UK, the Life in the UK test was introduced by the Home Office in 2005 for people seeking British citizenship, and also from 2 April 2007 for those seeking permanent resident status. Given the recent history of migration politics in the UK, this test, drafted by the Advisory Board on Naturalisation and Integration, is arguably aimed at encouraging exclusion rather than inclusion. Osler and Starkey (2010) explain the “othering” within the UK citizenship education framework as something for marginalised communities to learn in order to integrate rather than for all to learn in order to understand and appreciate the human rights and equality of all regardless of national or immigration status. The approach by Osler and Starkey (2010) would therefore render a Citizenship Test as a measure of “othering”, and not consistent with universal human rights. Through measurements such as Citizenship Tests, much of the knowledge and cultural capital that migrants bring to the new country, they would argue, gets lost in the process. The test would therefore be defeatist in the sense that true and meaningful citizenship requires in fact a sense of global belonging (Osler and Starkey, 2010), rather than the opposite.

The Life in the UK handbook states that, “The Government welcomes new migrants to Britain...We hope that this journey will be a fascinating and worthwhile one for you.” Under New Labour there were underlying political assumptions that the introduction of this Life in the UK Test would promote a greater appreciation of British culture, through an enhanced understanding of what it means to be British, what it means to be a citizen and what “community cohesion” entails.72 It was assumed that such a test would help applicants to know what is valid and relevant in British society and history; hence people would be encouraged, by sitting the test, to learn more about British culture and language, thereby helping to create “strong and cohesive communities”. The format of the test is informed by a Home Office Report, The New and the Old (2003), which argued for a “more meaningful” way of applying to become a citizen, to avoid laborious paperwork by post.73

The handbook comprises 9 chapters, of which chapters 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 are compulsory reading for the citizenship test. The content is as follows: The making of the UK (chapter 1), A changing society (chapter 2), UK Today: A Profile (*chapter 3), How the UK is governed (chapter 4), Everyday needs (chapter 5), Employment (chapter 6), Knowing the Law (chapter 7), Sources of help and information (chapter 8), Building better communities (chapter 9).

According to John Reid, during his time as Home Secretary, these tests “...have been a real success. They have encouraged people who have decided to make their lives in Britain to learn more about our culture and institutions, and in many cases to improve their knowledge of our language. We think that the benefits of this approach in creating strong and cohesive communities are clear...We have taken account of the many comments about the handbook.” (Foreword, Life in the United Kingdom, A journey to Citizenship, 2007).

The Life in the UK Test signposted a radical intervention under New Labour to curtail immigration. The threshold for gaining and earning citizenship and residence was raised through the formulation of English and Political “literacy” tests. Eight of the fourteen members of the group of experts on political and English literacy had expertise in education, reinforcing the close links between the citizenship education and political agenda, and also reinforcing the notion of the right to citizenship and residency to be subject to passing “literacy” examinations. It is also acknowledged that an identity-based understanding of citizenship is absent from the test74, though a fundamental cornerstone of the recommendations made in the Agjebo report for improvement of community relations.75

Informed by the requirements of an ESOL Entry Level 3 test, the twenty-four questions in the test are purportedly about “the practical meaning of citizenship or the Life in the UK Test”, about “important aspects of life in Britain today”. Questions are based on chapters 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 of the handbook. The publication has been approved by New Labour Ministers and has official status, with a disclaimer on the imprint page that the views and advice contained in the publication are those of the Advisory Group on Life in the United Kingdom and not necessarily those of Her Majesty's Government.

The compulsory chapters for “testing citizenship competence” include content on migration; the changing role of women, children family and young people; population profiles and ethnic demographics; the nations and regions of the UK; religion; customs and traditions; how the UK is governed; the UK in Europe and the World; housing; services in and for the home; money and credit; health, education; leisure; travel and transport; how to seek employment; equal rights and discrimination at work; self employment; childcare, and children at work. Contrary to popular belief and media reports, there is no section on how to apply for benefits or tax credit, or anything of that sort. Those who devised the test argue that controversial issues in British society were avoided in the tests as to make it more “pragmatic”. Controversial chapters are therefore not tested, such as British history. Those who devised the test, have also expressed concern that the pass rate is lower than expected, especially for some nationalities with percentage scores of lower than 50%, for those from Afghanistan, Angola, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Turkey.76

A particular grand narrative informs the Life in the UK Test. It promotes the idea that the UK was made as an imperial power, rather than constituted since its inception by migrants. Migration is presented as chiefly a post-1945 phenomenon, when Britain had to start the legal process of “accommodating foreigners”. In this process of accommodating the other, it seemingly became important to “know the law”, to observe the rights and duties of a citizen, and to understand human rights. Words selected for the glossary reinforce the notion of “accommodating the other”: asylum; asylum seekers; deport, ethnic minority; ethnic origin; Islamic mortgage; pluralistic society; refuge and refugees; restrict immigration; terrorism; torture; and voluntary work (According to recent research in 2010, many young black people or / and “ethnic minorities” are notoriously unemployed77 or most likely in low earning occupations (in spite of high qualifications earned and high level skills gained abroad) and could therefore also most likely be the ones to typically remain the “life long volunteers” in the UK).78

This grand narrative of the UK's history is also one which celebrates a history of evangelism towards “saving” the wretched of the world as asylum seekers and as former slaves. Britain's history as slave trading empire is sanitised through a narrative in chapter 1 of the Life in the UK Test, which highlights the role of the “evangelical Christian William Wilberforce”.

The immigration issue became a heated subject of debate amongst politicians,79 in the lead-up to the 2010 General Election.80 It is perhaps safe to say that newcomers to the UK do not see their roles as recipients of charity or liberal goodwill; in fact to the contrary. Numerous media reports in recent years have tried to show the significant economic contribution people from other countries make to the UK. The research findings have remained controversial as they have been used to score political points and remain subject to further empirical findings for an informed position on the issue.81 However, key points have been made that may be helpful: that the number of asylum seekers has fallen to early 1990s levels, that the cultural diversity of peoples in the UK are not seen as “economically beneficial to the UK”, that the UK is not unique in terms of immigration demographics and has also emigration as in any other country, that there are ethnic minority groups (those from Somalia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey) that rank consistently lower in terms of economic indicators and employment in the UK and by default have to rely on the benefit system.82 The use of the benefit system by ethnic minority groups, perhaps having more to do with the economic impact of institutional racism than with people's inherent desire to live off a system – though this too is still subject to further research.

In its presentation of “The Making of the United Kingdom” in its first chapter, the test denies the early African presence in London. African presence is dated from 1700s London as “free Africans” and “escaped slaves” working as “servants or craftsmen”. (Life in the UK Test, 2007, p.19) Early African intellectuals such as Equiano, remain anonymous and invisible.83 The Boer War of 1899-1902 is specifically mentioned as an attempt to “control the gold mines in South Africa”, “colonised by settlers from the Netherlands called the Boers”. (Life in the UK Test, 2007, p. 21) Little mention is made of the immense suffering caused to millions of African Diaspora communities84 by the transatlantic slave trade (the vague word “many” is used). (Life in the UK Test, 2007, p.21) Though mention is made of “one million Indians (who) fought on behalf of the UK all over the world” (Life in the UK Test, 2007, p.21) there is no specific mention of the Ghurka85 community, there is vague mention of “men” “who fought on behalf of the British”(Life in the UK Test, 2007, p.22); yet it is a significant historical fact that a few 100,000 African soldiers fought on the side of the Allied forces in the Second World War.

The growth of independence movements in the post 1945 period is briefly mentioned in a de-contextualised way, as “natural” developments in developing societies at the time when the UK was “exhausted” and could no longer sustain them. (Life in the UK Test, 2007, p.22) – not so much as a result of anti-colonial struggles that pre-date 1945 by far. Domestically, class is underplayed and multiculturalism is celebrated as its “replacement”. Though the problem of racism in the UK is acknowledged, it is suggested that most people believe it has “diminished”. The test promotes the view that British nationalism, i.e. Britishness, sits comfortably with its multi-cultural ethos. There is no contradiction nor tension between the two; no complexity on the matter whether an individual identity is English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. In describing this comfortable synergy, other identities are glaringly absent: Indian, Pakistani, African, Chinese and so on. There seems a notion suggesting a mainstream multiculturalism (former) and periphery multiculturalism (latter). The test has a decidedly exclusionist tone both in historical interpretation and in analysis and approach to the present identities in the UK. Migration in the distant past was by triumphant victors of history; while more recent migration is due to embracing the liberal welfare state as refuge for “a better life”. (p.27). In chapter 2 on “A changing society”), black settlement and the African presence in the UK (though acknowledgement of the economic reasons for settlement, that benefited the UK such as in 1948 when people from the West Indies were invited to come work), the general impression for the reader is of a story of providing safety from persecution, in the long lineage of this history dating to 16th and 18th century French Huguenots , 1840s Irish migration during the potato famine, and the late 19th century and early 20th century Jewish settlement as a result of the pogroms. (Life in the UK Test, 2007, chapter 1 and chapter 2, pp.27 – 28)

The big turning point in British multicultural history is presented as migration since 1945 through workforce recruitment of people from the West Indies and the 1950s recruitment of workers from India and Pakistan and later Bangladesh. This influx purportedly forced the government to pass new laws to restrict immigration in the late 1960s and early 70s. However, the underlying narrative suggests the British as saviour nation coming again to the rescue when a large number of refugees in the 1970s fled from Uganda, from Vietnam and South East Asia, from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and in the early 1990s from the former Soviet Union; with large numbers also having arrived since 2004 from the new East European member sates of the EU.86

The huge turning points in British history are presented as coinciding with the charitable gestures of Empire towards suffering peoples in the world, or those emerging from economically suffering parts of the world. This essentialist notion of British history and its role in the world, is what informs the multi-cultural nature of Britain and its present responsibility and approaches to “integrating” people who came chiefly for safety from persecution. The public grand narrative is simple, celebratory, uncomplicated.

The test is designed to test rote learning and memory of trivial and insignificant data such as something like which percentage of the population is Muslim, or Indian with answers ranging from obscure figures such as 1,8% 1,3%, 0.5%, 0,2% etc. of the divisions within divisions. Or it could be asked as 1.1 million, 0.7 million, 0.3 million, 0.1 million etc. Candidates for informed citizenship are expected to rote learn percentages of Indians, Pakistanis, African Caribbean, African, Chinese in the UK, all basically reduced to a fraction of 1%, except Indians at 1.1%.(Life in the UK Test, 2007, Chapter 3 “UK Today: A Profile”, pp. 35 – 38). This makes up not only a substantial part of the guide for study and testing, and also of on-line tests and the test itself.87 The testing of statistical trivia seems on the surface aimed at frustrating and obstructing the course to obtaining the right to live in the UK. To those who lived and schooled under apartheid in South Africa,88 and who now live in the UK, may find uncanny parallels in the rote learning of tribal and demographic trivia in examinations that were used to set black candidates up to fail the system. The historical context, here, is of course different.

It is also expected that candidates rote learn the exact fractions with their decimals of point 1, point 7, point 9, point 2, point 6 respectively within the categories of sub categories “within the nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”. (op cit) As if this is not sufficient, candidates have to rote learn the sub percentages of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists, Other, No religion and Stated. All mostly obscure percentages of fractions of 1% with decimals. (op cit) The test is not designed to test significant knowledge. Guy Fawkes is a favourite catch question in the test (it rears its head repeatedly also in the on-line trial tests). The nature of the formulation of questions differs in respective tests, but the general impression from the on-line trial tests indicates an inclination to ask the question on Guy Fawkes in the light of unsuccessful attempts to blow up parliament. There seems an unexplained preoccupation with this failed terrorist act. Many questions selected for the free on-line tests, though not official, are interesting in themselves as they reflect the efforts of those trying to help others to sit the test, based on their own experiences of the type of questions asked repeatedly.89 There are a lot of emphasis on demographic statistics in these on-line trial tests.

It makes sense that chapter 7, which covers covers racially and religiously motivated crime on knowing the law, should be a mandatory section to rote learn – because this information provides candidates with a powerful understanding of their rights and responsibilities. It is about the real things that black teenage boys experience in the UK. Similarly, the English proficiency test could also be usefully tested on The Human Rights Act and its list of 16 basic rights. This does not make part of the test, however, though it covers prohibition of torture; prohibition of slavery and forced labour; the right to a fair trial; the right to respect a person's private and family life; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of expression; freedom of assembly and association; right to marry, and prohibition of discrimination.

The test also reinforces a certain key Britishness construct of national identity: Christianity. Candidates are therefore expected to memorise St David's Day and St Georges Day. Many indigenous English are most likely only able to recognise St Patrick's Day. The test seems designed to reinforce the sense of not belonging, of being on the outside and not the inside, of alienation, and constructing a contrived and false identity of “Britishness” and by default of what “the other” constitutes as relative to the mainstream cultural norm.

The year 2007 presented a great challenge to British historiography. It questioned it to its very core as a new awareness of the legacy of the slave trade emerged, new questions were asked about identity, the economy, and the silence on economic reparation. The African Diaspora population is of the fastest growing in the UK. There is more awareness of Africa; more confidence in the capacity of Africa to lead globally; the successful World Cup in South Africa (amidst negative British media and speculations) a case in point. Africa is now increasingly turning towards China, India and Brazil for trade partnerships. It is within this context, that Britain is reinventing itself as “powerful” and “glorious” in the psyche not only of the world, but of its own citizens.

A Citizenship Test, implies that some “essentialist core” of what it means to be British exists, and that everyone else must be subjected first to write the test before they can be viewed as “sufficiently integrated” through language, culture and “historical knowledge “. Those who sit the test, can essentially be viewed as “outside the shared imagined community of the nation”. (Moll 2007) They have to prove themselves as being able to be a natural part of this “imagined coherent united national community”.

The test is said to be about English proficiency. It is common sense that linguistic relations are socially and politically constituted – it is not just about learning English, or understanding English; it is about negotiating one's place in the power relations in society when one engages in the power relations of language in any given society or community. (McLaren 1995). In the late 90s some research centred on “rethinking multiculturalism”, and its link to anti-racism. Called a “critical multiculturalism” (May 1999), this kind of research posits notions of reinforcing the “inherently superior” and dominant “white English” and the “othered”, the “to-be-integrated-and-accommodated-and-tolerated” “minority ethnic communities” into the core of unproblematic whiteness.90 It goes without saying that the Citizenship Test, in its content and approach and cultural and historiographical assumptions, reinforces this kind of perspective of the “mainstream” and the “benchmark” (those who sit the test must obtain an arbitrary 70% for the official validation of “the other” in a significant way.

A great amount of current research in citizenship in the UK centres on education and the global context of the rights of the child, rights and responsibilities through citizenship education, the school curriculum, UNICEF and the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, as situated within a global human rights framework. (See Osler and Starkey, 2005). The themes of debate are global, and situated around education as catalyst and facilitator for democracy and for inclusion. Such education research up-fronts racism overtly, and provides activist literature for anti racist education with teachers and curriculum policy makers. In this, the citizenship test is analysed indirectly, rather than directly – as contextual rather than as content for interrogation and analysis. The approach is pedagogic and based on educational and curriculum theory, rather than on the implied mandatory understandings of British history by policy makers, teachers and pupils that the notion of citizenship through things like The Life in the UK Test would suggest.

Much academic debate and research emerged after 9/11 and particularly in the UK after 7/7 on citizenship and its link to “othering” in the Western world. Much of such debate has been informed by global political economy analysis of the crisis of capitalism and the concomitant and necessary global capitalist identity crisis, which became reflected in the war against “terrorism”, “barbaric muslims” and “the Taliban”. Mogahed and Nyiri (2007) point out that it is about reinventing integration, about promoting the false assumption that “muslim religiosity threatens Europe”.

The Life in the UK Test (as the official “benchmark”) provides in a sense the official grand narrative of what British History constitutes in a nutshell, how it should be understood, what the perspective should be, what the main turning points are and why. Therefore, “newcomers” should be subjected to this mandatory understanding of British society and its history in order to become citizens or to be granted permanent residence. The Life in the UK Test can be interpreted as the instrument for “othering” in a post 7/7 context.

Stephens (2007) speaks of the “different ideas of community” that circulated in the aftermath of 7/7 and the new approaches to the politics of “belonging”, the “British way of life” and “unity” as constructs. In this sense, the citizenship test suggesting perhaps that a “national identity of belonging” exists, something that we should all have in “common”, as if there is one monolithic interpretation of history, society, culture and belonging. Stephens (2007) makes reference to the grand narrative of 7/7 and its parallels to British approaches to the attacks of the IRA and to the Blitz in the Second World War.

The emerging grand narrative of Empire for School History and its implications for Belonging and Citizenship

The current Education Secretary, Michael Gove, recently announced that children should be taught that the “big story” of the last 500 years is “the rise of western domination of the world”.91 The historian to be the architect of the grand narrative for schools to glorify Britain and its past, is said to be working on ideas to “campaign for real history”; for this triumphant national story to be compulsorary to GCSE. In the Conservative Party election campaign it was David Cameron who often called for a “spine of narrative history” in the curriculum, a core that runs through rather than electives. The hired historian, Ferguson,92 is quoted as saying, “In this country, the vast majority of school pupils learn only about Henry VIII, Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King. That is what teenagers leave school knowing about, and that is not really enough.” His own children, he said, had not been taught who the original Martin Luther was.93

Under the Coalition Government, the long-fought for battle for inclusion of black history as mainstream history is under serious threat, seen as synonymous with being “boring” in much the same way that global and development education and awareness is viewed by the Conservatives as “trivial”. Many charities and NGOs that have delivered important 21st century education and training on global awareness, supporting school linking and so on, are under threat of financial cuts.94 This is the emerging contradiction of the announcement of Cameron's “big society”. The Conservatives want a grand narrative. And not just any grand narrative – a white Eurocentric one with an “enforced chronological range”.95 Whilst there is an appreciation for a proposal for more “coherent” history to do with linking themes in history and understanding chronology, (as proposed by the 2007 Ofsted Report on History in the Balance)96, this could also imply a privileging of Eurocentric history, as the prism through which black history needs to be validated, interpreted, appreciated and understood. This implies a reversal of at least a century of work in black historiography globally. Should this kind of approach proceed, children in Britain may be deprived of the chance to understand the world in the more sophisticated inclusive way in favour of a narrow, biased white-imperialist view of the world. Contrary to popular belief, the education needs in the UK are not dissimilar to those in post-conflict societies, as was evidently highlighted by the numerous national dialogues and debates in 2007, on the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

Already Education Secretary Michael Gove is suggesting amnesia on Britain's responsibility for and role in the transatlantic slave trade. By noting that slavery existed long before the British Empire was established, he seems perhaps to be suggesting that it was not really such a big national issue as made out to be by African Diaspora communities in the 2007 national debates around the issue of reparation. Tory historian Niall Ferguson admits that the new curriculum would be bound to be “Eurocentric” because the world was “Eurocentric”. The curriculum will be a “traditionalist” one, within which British “achievements” will be celebrated.97 Whilst depth of content knowledge is important (and the critique of the present curriculum may be relevant here), it is still a matter of selection of content and truths and the perspective provided that is at the core of history teaching. Significantly, the tremendously political and intellectually important and pioneering work done by the Mayor’s African and Asian Heritage Commission (2005-2008)98 is possibly under threat of being ignored and discarded. The report, which brought together a great number of practising professionals in the field, deals with the burning issues of race equality, establishing equitable partnerships with communities, diversifying audiences, the British workforce in arts and culture and diversifying collections (amongst others). Is is feared that it will be shelved by the new government, as it was introduced under New Labour in 2005.99

There are many worrying developments under the new government with regard to diversity, heritage, history and education. For instance, to suggest (as recently reported in the New Statesman by a Parliamentary researcher, Laurie Penny, as one of the recent statements by Tory historian Andrew Roberts,100 a millionnaire and historian admired by George W Bush, who is apparently being lined up to advise on the school curriculum for schools on the interpretation of Empire's history)101 that the Boers were killed in concentration camps in the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902 because of their “stupidity” is tantamount to hate speech.102 The irony here, of course, being that Andrew Roberts addressed the South African Afrikaner right-wing inspired Springbok Club in 2001 as an honoured guest shortly after their formation in the UK in 1999. 103 There are undoubtedly close ties between the Afrikaner apartheid-era nationalist approach to history and the approach of the Tories to British history (in terms of national chauvinism, though not class).104

Similar arguments of “superiority” and “achievement” were used in apartheid texts written for black children, suggesting blacks were stupid and inferior and therefore destined to be ruled by Europe, Empire and white Afrikaners. European achievements and civilisation were celebrated in such books, page after page. In his critique of recent developments in school history under the Tories, Simon Schama wisely called for a multiple of perspectives from a variety of historians to avoid a “dictatorship” of ideas and historical interpretation for children.105 There is an existent group of scholarship ignored such as the BASA, the Historical Association, the Royal Historical Society, the African Studies Association of the UK, History UK etc. - to name a few.

Which children in the UK will be celebrating, and which achievements? How does community cohesion fit into this one sided view of the world? Who will be included in the main story? Who will be excluded? Who will be part of the core thread of the story? Who will be at the margins? Whose identity will be foregrounded? Who will be othered? Whose identity is being privileged as the “core of Britishness”?

A critical dialogic approach to citizenship education is therefore of paramount importance, such as engaging in constructive dialogue on controversial global issues, for instance. (Warwick and Cremin, 2010).106 In this, subject knowledge is important, and widely recognised and acknowledged by history education specialists in the UK and pointed out also in work on citizenship education of West (in Gearon, 2010).107 The former cannot obviously be attained in pedagogy without the latter.

The discourse on identity and citizenship over the last decade has moved far ahead of the stance taken by the current administration; approaches to debates about theories of citizenship, cultural pluralism, the new language of cosmopolitan citizenship, transnational communities, post-nationalism, the deterritorialisation of space (Delantey 2000). Globalisation and constant migration is a given. The community remains core in the new understandings and research, in what for a long time has been called “experiential knowledge” and “experiential learning”.108 Identity and citizenship are not static. Human beings are in a constant flux of movement and redefinition of the self in respective global spaces (real and virtual). There are new discourses on the nation state, its limitations and the increasing identity of individuals with a global citizenship (Kivisto and Faist 2007). Dialogue has therefore become important for moral, cultural and economic sustainability in the multi-layered British society of identity and being. One thing is certain, though: there is a rich and excellent educational and intellectual tradition in the UK to draw from to fit the needs of a 21st century Britain in an ever increasingly diverse country and globalised world. 


  1. See Derek Heater in Liam Gearon (ed), Learning to Teach Citizenship in the secondary school, 2010, p. 8. ^
  2. See James Arthur and Daniel Wright, Teaching Citizenship in the Secondary School, 2001, p. 7 ^
  3. Arthur and Wright (2001) ^
  4. See ^
  5. Encouraging Citizenship: Report of the Commission on Citizenship, London: HMSO, 1990. ^
  6. See ^
  7. See for reference to the Crick Report on “good and active citizenship” (p.11). See also$467055.htm. ^
  8. See selected readings for teacher training on the pedagogy and teaching method of citizenship education that covers these aspects: Gearon (2010), Osler and Starkey (2005), Arthur and Wright (2001). ^
  9. See ^
  10. See briefing linked in previous footnote ^
  11. See ^ See ^
  12. See the implementation of this in government policy in 2007 in ^
  13. See ^
  14. See James Arthur and Daniel Wright, Teaching Citizenship in the Secondary School, 2001, pp.9-11 ^
  15. T.H.Marshall wrote Citizenship and Class (1950), in which he emphasised the issues of the time such as morality etc. A copy of this report can be found at ^
  16. See Audrey Osler and Hugh Starkey in Changing Citizenship: Democracy and Inclusion in Education, 2005, p. 90 ^
  17. See present curriculum at which has “values” at its core ^
  18. See p. 19. ^
  19. See for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales for 16-24 year olds ^
  20. See for instance Institute for Citizenship's guidelines for Inservice Training for Teachers (INSET) at ^
  21. See See ^
  22. The title here evidently related to the identity discourse on “Who do you think you are” currently explored in schools. This theme was to be explored in the Agjebo Report that followed. ^
  23. See, Imperial College, London on Saturday 14th January 2006. ^
  24. Widely known as an approach to history critically examined by critical theorist Jean-François Lyotard in a discussion of post-modernism in the late 1970s. ^
  25. See note 25, above. ^
  26. This speech is made on the eve of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007, when William Wilberforce becomes the dominant “history from above” discourse. ^
  27. See bite 25, above. ^
  28. See BBC News. See also p.26. ^
  29. See ^
  30. See See ^
  31. See ^
  32. See also ^
  33. See ^
  34. The writer served on the 2007 National Heritage Network where these dialogues took place. See the report at ^
  35. See ^
  36. p. 8 Debate on 19 June 2008. ^
  37. The author's own analysis, but see Gerard Delanty, Citizenship in a global age, 2000, for a discussion on these new issues in the chapter: “The reconfiguration of citizenship: post-national governance in the multi-levelled polity”. His arguments problematises essentialism in approaches to citizenship and identity. ^
  38. See ^
  39. The report can be purchased for £26 at ^
  40. See for instance the INSET (in service training) work of SCOTDEC in Edinburgh and Tower Hamlets Development Education Centre in London and their respective links to DfiD at ^
  41. See ^
  42. See Schools Council History 13-16 Project, A new look at History, Holmes and McDougall, 1976 ^
  43. Ibid. ^
  44. Ibid. ^
  45. Ibid. ^
  46. Ibid. ^
  47. E.H. Carr, What is History? (Cambridge, 1961) ^
  48. See ^
  49. See ^
  50. Personal observation. ^
  51. A term associated with the work of Michel Foucault. See idem, Language, Counter Memory and Practice, Cornell University Press, 1977. ^
  52. Such as writings of Steve Biko, follower of Fanon, who wrote “I write What I like” (as an anti-colonial statement of essays), Heineman, 1978. ^
  53. See unpublished and undated BASA paper at ^
  54. Ibid. ^
  55. See ^
  56. See for example Rozina Visram, 2002. ^
  57. See for instance an example of the current trends in multi-cultural education with diverse teaching resources for schools reflecting a much evolved sense of place and time in British history. ^
  58. See Wilson M and Thompson L (eds), The Oxford History of South Africa, Volumes 1 and 2, Claredon Press, Oxford, 1969 ^
  59. J. M.D. Meiklejohn, The British Empire: its geography and resources, commerce, land-ways and water ways, A.M.Holden, 1899 ^
  60. Such as at the time of the radical History Workshop group of historians that emerged in Britain in 1967 ^
  61. Both published leading works on a class analysis of Britain and Europe. See Christopher Saunders, The making of South Africa's past, David Philip, Cape Town, 1988, p.170 ^
  62. Referring to “The Social Contract” and the sovereign power of the people. ^
  63. See G.Rude, The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France And England, 1730-1848, Oxford University Press, 1967 ^
  64. See for instance, W.H. Andrews, Class Struggles in South Africa, Stewart, Cape Town, 1941; S.P. Bunting, The Red Revolt: The Rand Strike, ISL Press, Johannesburg, 1922; E.R. Roux, Time Longer than Rope, Gollancz, 1948 ^
  65. See Plaatje, S.T. Native Life in South Africa, Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1982 ^
  66. Such as the Radical Historians Organisation (MARHO) in the United States, an body that publishes scholarly journals engaging with political issues. See, for example, the Radical History Review. ^
  67. Projects would include Zimbabwe's People's History (by Peter Garlake and others) and South Africa's many history projects, such as South African History Online. ^
  68. See numerous newspaper references on the current bigotry against foreigners at the end of this article. ^
  69. See UNESCO International Journal of Multicultural Societies, 2008, Vol.10, Issue Number 1 ^
  70. The New and the Old, Home Office, 2003, p.2 ^
  71. Ibid., p. 8. ^
  72. See p.7 ^
  73. See p.7 ^
  74. See Page 11 ^
  75. See and ^
  76. The latter point made, still subject to empirical research though it is one of the predicted and expected outcomes of institutional racism still very prevalent in the UK. This point is also made by Osler and Starkey (2005) with reference to the lack of appropriate and constructive use of the knowledge and skills that a diverse population brings to the UK. ^
  77. ^
  78. See House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs Report on the issue of immigration and the debates, April 2008. ^
  79. See points made in introduction and conclusion of the IPPR Report of September 2007 ^
  80. See IPPR Report, September 2007 ^
  81. William Wilberforce is mentioned, whilst reference to Equiano is indirect, e.g. “Some wrote books about their experiences.” Life in the UK Test, 2007, p.19 ^
  82. See Life in the UK Test, 2007, p.19 ^
  83. There has been ongoing pressure on the British government in recent regarding the Ghurkas and their right to benefits and settlement in the UK. ^
  84. See earlier point made in the IPPR Report that asylum application levels have fallen to the early 1990s ^
  85. The writer has done the test herself at one of the Test Centres. ^
  86. The writer grew up under apartheid South Africa, and spent twelve years in school under the oppressive regime. ^
  87. See for instance ^
  88. The writer's own analysis. ^
  89. See ^
  90. ^
  91. Martin Luther is already in the current curriculum. See The Civil Rights Movement is optional. See ^
  92. See ^
  93. See ^
  94. See ^
  95. See ^
  96. See ^
  97. See the Report at ^
  98. ^
  99. See ^
  100. See ^
  101. See also ^
  102. See, which includes the old South African flag and which was established to bring “civilised rule” back into southern Africa ^
  103. See also critique from Professor Jackie Eales, convenor of UK History. ^
  104. See Paul Warwick and Hilary Cremin, “Developing skills of enquiry: a critical dialogic approach to citizenship education and its contribution to community cohesion” in Gearon (ed), 2010 ^
  105. See Liz West, “Developing Subject Knowledge in Citizenship” in Gearon (ed), 2010 ^
  106. See extensive use of this notion of learning (today widely recognised by leading educationalists in the world) in Bell Hooks, Teaching to Transgress, New York, 1994 ^