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Less than Full Marks for Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools

Civitas, 6 October 2004

In a speech made yesterday to a secondary school in County Durham, Mr David Bell, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools for England and Wales, laid out his vision of what purposes our schools should serve in today’s ever more globalised world. According to Mr Bell, they should seek to accomplish two main purposes.
The first is to teach the 3 R’s. This assertion of Mr Bell may come as a pleasant surprise to all traditionally minded individuals more used, in recent times, to hearing pronouncements by educationists on the purposes of schools that seem to view their prime function more as adjuncts of the social services than as educational establishments.

What Mr Bell identifies as the second main purpose of schools gives less cause for reassurance. He claims that, aside from imparting these basic skills, today’s schools should seek to prepare their pupils for their future life as responsible citizens, and to do so in ways that foster social cohesion as well as encourage their self-awareness as citizens of a wider world-community beyond their country with attendant moral responsibilities. This function schools are supposed to fulfil today through their teaching ‘citizenship’, newly introduced as a compulsory subject in the National Curriculum.
At first glance, what Mr Bell identifies as the second main purpose of schools may appear no less innocuous or meritorious than what he identifies as being their first. What, it might be wondered, could be more innocuous or worthy of endeavour than that schools should seek to turn out morally responsible and politically literate alumni aware of their wider moral responsibilities as well as the civic ones associated with their national citizenship?
The answer to this question is nothing. But this is provided schools and their Inspectorate can be relied on to have correctly identified which responsibilities associated with each of these two roles their pupils should go on to fulfil. Unfortunately, other remarks by Mr Bell in his speech, plus the way the citizenship curriculum is increasingly coming to be specified and delivered, suggest what is being purveyed under that term in today’s schools is very different and altogether more questionable.
Worryingly, what is being offered in today’s schools as citizenship education, and is seemingly being offered with the full knowledge and blessing of the Chief Inspector, is nothing short of a systematic attempt to subvert the formation in their pupils of any robust sense of national identity or pride in their country, and their replacement by a cosmopolitan sense of global citizenship in which there is no form of identification with any single nationality.
For example, after remarking innocuously enough that ‘citizenship education … offers us a forum … for looking at ways of resolving conflicts and living together in mutual respect’ and that ‘education has an urgent and important part to play in promoting social cohesion’, Mr. Bell proceeds immediately by remarking that: ‘[This] begs [sic] questions about who we are, about national identity. Over the summer I know many of us reflected on what the numerous crosses of St George displayed for Euro 2004 really meant. Were they signs of the cheerful camaraderie of loyal football supporters – or was there something more sinister in the public expression of Englishness?’
From the context in which Mr Bell posed his question, it is clear he intended it as a rhetorical one and hence as an implicit assertion that any affirmation of or pride in English national identity is tacitly xenophobic and an insult to religious or ethnic minorities.
Anyone who so thinks will likely wish to use the citizenship slot in the National Curriculum to downplay the salience of traditional conceptions of national identity and to elevate the status of global citizenship in the hope the latter will provide a sufficiently robust and accommodating sense of common identity as is needed for social cohesion. Despite the best of intentions, however, any such a policy is liable to increase rather than reduce social fragmentation and to erode rather than increase social cohesion.
It took the saner voices among the educational establishment well on twenty years to realise the folly and complete ineffectiveness of the more progressive methods for teaching literacy and numeracy once canvassed and widely adopted in schools and against which Mr Bell rightly inveighs. Let us hope it will not take a civil war, Sarayevo or Kosovoa-style, to alert the educational establishment to the need for a common culture to foster social cohesion, or to make them appreciate that England’s traditional tolerant and liberal culture is far better suited for the purpose than any artificially manufactured new one, dreamt up by educational progressives concerned to give equal billing to every minority for fear of offending or failing to give equal respect to any, however bizarre or illiberal it might be.
So, ‘ten out of ten’ to Mr Bell for having rightly recognised the importance of schools teaching numeracy and literacy. A lower grade is warranted for his ill-considered claims about what their civic function should be.
He and his fellow enthusiasts for multicultural citizenship education would do well to do some more homework on this subject. They could do worse as a start than by reading Samuel Huntington’s recent book, ‘Who Are We? America’s Great Debate’. If, as they all claim, citizenship education is something that should go on beyond school years, they would find it an instructive and timely way for them to practise what they preach.

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