Civitas Institute for the Study of Civil Society

May 2009

Media information: embargo 00.01am Monday 11 May


New version of Empire Day in schools called for to promote social cohesion


British history and culture, taught in the English language, should be privileged in schools


A new version of Empire Day, celebrated in all schools throughout the British Empire for over half-a-century, is needed to promote social cohesion in schools today, according to a new report from independent think-tank Civitas.


In Disunited Kingdom David Conway argues that, if the government is looking for ways in which to promote social cohesion through schools, one promising approach would be to teach about the British Empire, and in particular the role played by colonial troops in the defeat of Fascism during the Second World War:


'Study of the British Empire could potentially prove a highly fertile source of common historical memories in the case of today's schoolchildren. It is one that could serve to unite them and to strengthen cohesion… Suitable annual commemorations of all who fought and died on behalf of Britain would give practically all of its present-day inhabitants an annual ceremony that could truly serve to bind them.' (pp.129-132)


David Conway points out that the Empire provided more than five million troops during the Second World War, almost as many as the UK. Not only did they help to secure the defeat of Nazi Fascism, but also the savagery of the Japanese Empire (pp.130-31). The British Empire provided many examples of heroic sacrifice, such as that of Princess Noor-al-nisa who was posthumously awarded the George Cross after her activities for British intelligence had caused her to be sent to her death at Dachau (p.132).


Commonwealth Day has been the second Monday in March since 1977 but is not a public holiday. Before it was renamed, Empire Day was held on 24 May between 1902 and 1957. It would be a simple matter to convert the second bank holiday in May (25 May this year) to Commonwealth Day and to make it a special occasion for honouring the sacrifice of all nations in the former Empire during the Second World War and to celebrate the firm commitment to liberal-democratic beliefs and institutions that allows people from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds to live in peace as British citizens.


History must be taught as a chronological narrative - and in English


Teaching about the Empire should be within the context of a revival of teaching British history as a chronological narrative that makes sense of the past and the present:


'One way in which the country's maintained schools could be made to promote community cohesion would be by once again being able, if not required, to teach a comprehensive narrative national history… For it is only by learning about the country's national history that they [British schoolchildren] can acquire the relevant stock of shared memories needed to induce in them a sense of common identity and belonging.' (pp.138,134)


Furthermore, such teaching should take place in English which, Conway argues, should remain the dominant language of the educational system, contrary to the requirements of the Council of Europe's Charter of Regional or Minority Languages, to which the UK government became a signatory in 2000.


'Since then, English has ceased to be the common medium of instruction in state schools. The UK government now recognises… Welsh, Scottish, Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Ulster Scots and Cornish… The way in which minority languages are being officially promoted should be a matter of alarm, unless Britons are content to see regional and local identities replace national ones. Why anyone concerned about community cohesion should want to see that happen remains unclear, unless they were hoping that, in due course, some common overarching sense of European identity will replace national ones.' (pp.134-35)


The Unity and Diversity Strand


Such relatively simple measures as these would be, Conway argues, much more effective than some elaborate methods of social engineering adopted by the government in the light of riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001, followed by the terrorist attacks in London of 2005.


Conway particularly criticises the new Identity and Diversity strand, added to the teaching of citizenship on the recommendation of the report Our Shared Future produced by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion. This calls for the teaching of issues such as Britishness and the United Kingdom in such a way as 'to undermine in the minds of schoolchildren any notion that Britain had ever enjoyed cohesion' (p.113). The approach to immigration is, to say the least, contestable, and slavery is to be taught in such a way as to 'place native white Britons in the worst possible light' and to deprive white schoolchildren of 'any form of vicarious pride at the vanguard role their countrymen took in ending it' (p.114).


The report is based on the theory of Interculturalism which calls for the celebration of every culture, with no privileging of the host culture. Unsurprisingly, white children, especially those from working-class homes, exposed to this 'experienced themselves as having an invisible culture, or being even cultureless' (p.115).


Interculturalism refuted


Conway argues, on the contrary, that the tried-and-tested way by which societies that have experienced substantial immigration have found cohesion is through immigrant assimilation. Consequently, immigrants should accept the liberal political culture of this country and become proficient in its native language. This does not require them to discard all the traditions of their countries of origin, provided these are compatible with the basic values of this country including democracy, toleration, freedom of speech, universal moral principles, the rule of law, no coercion in religion and one law for all.


Ofsted a 'toothless tiger'


Conway considers the argument that faith schools are divisive and should be banned, but rejects it on a number of grounds.


  • It would be unfair for the state to fund schools but refuse to fund faith schools, when parents indicate a preference for faith-based education and members of relevant faith groups are prepared to bear the extra costs incurred
  • Faith schools have better than average educational outcomes, and thus prepare their students more effectively for the world of work, which in itself promotes cohesion
  • Faith schools have a good record of preventing the bullying of members of minority groups

Conway acknowledges that there are concerns about some independent Muslim schools, run by groups with affiliations to extremist elements of Islam. However, he argues that 'Islam is no more inherently illiberal than other major religions' and if there were more Muslim schools in the maintained sector it would strengthen the position of moderate Muslims. In so far as some independent Muslim schools are damaging social cohesion and even threatening the safety of the wider community, we rely on Ofsted to exercise 'their current powers of inspection and regulation to enforce compliance with all the statutory requirements schools must fulfil to be able lawfully to operate' (p.138). Unfortunately Ofsted seems to have become a 'toothless tiger in relation to many independent Muslim schools', some of which 'will remain a grave potential threat to community cohesion no matter what they might be nominally required to teach. It is not faith schools as such that pose a problem for community cohesion today. Rather it is the agencies of the state responsible for their inspection and regulation… As with so much else that is wrong in British life today, the remedy lies in government doing less, but in doing that less much better' (p.139).


For more information contact David Conway on: 020 7799 6677


Disunited Kingdom: How the government's community cohesion agenda undermines British identity and nationhood by David Conway is published by Civitas, ISBN 978-1-906837-05-1, price £12.75 inc pp. Tel 020 7799 6677.


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