‘Community cohesion’ is now a legal obligation on school governors and we must make the best of it, says Richard Bird, former headteacher and now legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). He asks how teaching of history could contribute to this objective.

‘Community cohesion’ may have gone into the Education and Inspections Act 2006 as an afterthought but we can be sure that Ofsted is even now planning how to enforce the obligation.

The kinds of meanings that we can give community cohesion are: that people of different backgrounds in this country should live in harmony; that they should share civic values; that they should have a shared sense of citizenship; and that they should value their differences. There are several ways in which making this happen can be approached. The one that appears in the Admissions Code of Practice is ethnic and social class monitoring to try to ensure that children from different backgrounds are educated together. Where housing circumstances or the existence of faith schools make this impossible, then schools may be given an obligation to have social contacts between schools. Targets for this can be set and monitored. 

There is a cautionary tale, though, doubtless apocryphal, from Northern Ireland, where community cohesion has had official targets for many years. A saintly nun, running a youth club in a Catholic area, was allegedly heard to say, ‘If those Protestants ask for one more football match to get a tick in their “inter-community” box, I’ll be over there to give them a good thrashing.’

Targets or no targets, though, good heads of rural schools have often set out to educate their children in the world of the multi-cultural city and to set up links and contacts: sometimes more thorough-going than links within cities. Then again, in schools which contain within themselves elements from different communities, the life and ethos of the school and its moral teaching, explicit or not, is something which can deeply affect the development of understanding, shared citizenship and equal value.

Curriculum support?

Finally, there is the curriculum. But where in the curriculum can we find anything that supports community cohesion in Britain? The obvious answer is ‘in citizenship’. But citizenship is a broken reed. Its very existence is a sign that Britain can no longer be described, in George Orwell’s words, as ‘A family with the wrong members in control.’

Ofsted’s crushing criticisms show that to curriculum planners in schools citizenship was unclear, unwanted and ineffective. Citizenship will always be marginal within the curriculum. It will be completely empty unless it is filled-out by a coherent story of Britain running through RE, geography, citizenship itself and above all, history.

At this point the question will be asked, ‘Are you suggesting’ horror of horrors, ‘that we imitate the French?’ British teachers have waxed merry for years over children in Senegal sitting down to a history textbook beginning, ‘Our ancestors, the Gauls.’ Where would we Brits start? ‘Saxons, Danes and Normans go home’ said an elevated Irish folk singer to me in a pub. ‘Britain for the British!’

Well, the French approach is funny in its way, but De Gaulle thought nothing about calling on a black politician from the Ivory Coast to contribute to the rewriting of the French Constitution, because he was culturally French, at a time when in Britain we were only working up to the Notting Hill riots.

It has to be recognised that the French approach has failed completely with Islamic communities, whether in Algeria or in metropolitan France itself. But if the attempt to force a metropolitan history on those who do not share it has failed, this does not diminish or dismiss the need for a coherent story.

A backward glance

What is odd is that there once was a coherent story in Britain and it was consciously created by history teachers. In headline terms ‘Our Island Story’ was composed of ‘Deeds that Won the Empire’; ‘Britain the Workshop of the World’; and ‘Britain Stands Alone Against the Tyrants’; all of which added up to ‘Land of Hope and Glory; Mother of the Free.’

And yes, it crumbled in the fiasco of Suez; the Wind of Change; the collapse into the hands of the International Monetary Fund and the sale of everything in Britain not derelict or bankrupt. The loss of empire; the collapse of the British economy and the demand for separation from the failing enterprise that has been Great Britain, seemed to make the old story false, or at best a mocking ghost.

When we may be looking at the last generation of Scottish politicians for whom the ‘noblest prospect a Scotchman sees, is the high road that leads him to London’ it may seem a doomed enterprise to try to come up with a coherent British story.

Yet the issue of a story to create community cohesion is crucial because, as as was suggested in work done for the report on the Bradford riots, we are now confronting not only immigration but colonisation.

A tale to bind

The difference is that an immigrant wants to join a country; a colonist simply wants to live in it: whether as a Greek building his planned ‘polis’ in ancient Sicily; or a Briton in the ‘Happy Valley’ of Kenya between the world wars. For colonists, assimilation is not on the agenda. There is a vital need, then, for history to tell all our children a tale that binds and does not divide.

And what contribution have history teachers made to this? So far very little. It almost amounts to a ‘trahison des clercs’, an intellectual betrayal of a nation’s children. The immediate result of the collapse of ‘Our Island Story’ was a retreat into the barren formalism of the now forgotten Schools Council history project. In this, all that mattered was ‘skills’. The subject matter was chosen for its utter irrelevance: the ‘Wild West’ of the USA and the History of Medicine.

The content today is more relevant but still incoherent and contains two huge gaps. One, almost too well known to repeat, is Europe: not the inter-European civil wars of the first half of the 20th century which reduced Europe to physical and moral ruin and impotence, but the attempt to rebuild Europe in the second half. The German ambassador is not the only person to ask whether the only person of importance in 20th-century Europe was Adolf Hitler.

The present changes the past. The terrorists in our midst today alter our view of the excommunication of Elizabeth I of England, the Douai priests and the Gunpowder Plot.

Missing history

So the other great gap, and at the moment it is more important for us in Britain in terms of community cohesion, is the British empire. The empire is like the forbidden room in Bluebeard’s castle. No one may look into it. Almost the total sum of teaching about the empire is the shame of the slave trade and indicative, but insignificant, items such as the life of Mary Seacole: the mixed-race nurse who set up a soldiers’ canteen in the Crimea when her services were rejected by Florence Nightingale. It just won’t do.

It may not be too important that children know why Canadians, Australians, and some South Africans, speak English but it matters very much that children have some idea of why India is the largest democracy in the world. Or why Pakistan is an independent state. Or about the history we share with sub-Saharan Africa. It’s important because people originating from the subcontinent and Africa are citizens of this country.

Much more important, it is absurd and dangerous to believe that community cohesion can be built out of shame on the one hand and a glorification of victimhood on the other. Shame leads to resentment and rejection; and a sense of victimhood leads at best to a sense of entitlement to endless consideration and at worst to a justification for mass murder.

Of course, it is easier to knock down than build up. There are real difficulties. Some of them are more or less insuperable. What, for example, are Muslim youngsters to make of the statue of the Richard Coeur de Lion proudly flourishing his sword outside the mother of parliaments?

In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson commented:

‘The lawfulness and justice of the holy wars have been much disputed; but perhaps there is a principle on which the question may be easily determined. If it be part of the religion of the Mahometans, to extirpate by the sword all other religions, it is, by the law of self-defence, lawful for men of every other religion, and for Christians among others, to make war upon Mahometans, simply as Mahometans, as men obliged by their own principles to make war upon Christians, and only lying in wait till opportunity shall promise them success.’
Johnson: Notes on ‘Henry IV part 1’

To which a ‘Mahometan’ (sic) might well reply, ‘And vice versa!’

Core elements

Where can we go then, if we are neither going tell children from all backgrounds, ‘learn our history to become us’ nor ‘learn nothing meaningful about either of us’?

The two core elements seem to be the development of British law and government and what all the various traditions of modern Britain have in common in a joint history.

The first element has not disappeared from history syllabuses and little needs to be said about it except that there has to be a clear ideological thrust to the taught history of our state. Starting with the Year Zero of the imposition of the Norman yoke of absolute feudal monarchy, it needs to trace the struggle towards shared power; fairness before the law; the conquest of corruption and the avoidance of theocracy.

All these can lead into the unfinished business of today which should be the subject of citizenship lessons: parliamentary reform; the funding of political parties; and the struggle between our elected parliament and the judges, supported by the Human Rights Act.

The second element can only be a tentative construction because the groundwork has not been done. Surely, though, there is a possibility of a theme of ‘the joint history of the peoples of Britain.’ It will include imperial history and the narrative will not be that created by the now independent states themselves.

Ironically, the conventional teaching of the Roman conquest has always rejected the ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ approach. The lesson has been that Roman rule offered the Britons access to a wider world and a better life: a world where an Iraqi naval squadron could defend one end of a wall built by a Spanish emperor. A world where a British chieftain could import pottery from France and glassware from Egypt; and where, for all the cruelties of Rome, there was justice for citizens in day-to-day life and encouragement of self-government.

Stories of cooperation

The same themes may be of use for the rest of the history of Britain and its empire. A pattern can be drawn of peoples and nations fighting and then cooperating. Of an empire that after the American disaster promoted self-government and educated towards independence. Of a determined effort to incorporate the leading elements of peoples conquered or conjoined with first England and then Great Britain into the same ways of thought. (The Indian civil service and the Macaulay programme of education for India are perhaps key points to dwell on).

We could do worse than pay attention to the centre that the Sikh community in Leicester established to draw attention to the association between Britain and the Sikhs.

Global citizenship is another key element. I mean the citizenship that took Indian traders to East Africa and Indian ‘coolies’ to Trinidad; brought West Indian airmen to die over Europe; West African soldiers to help British and Indian armies defeat the imperial Japanese army in Burma and Australians and Indians to die in the deserts of the Middle East to free Arabia from the Turks.

So, for all the cruelty and arrogance that must be acknowledged, the strong current for human rights and decency in the history of the British empire should not be ignored. It is worth considering again Queen Victoria’s denunciation of ‘racial prejudice’ and her strong words on the folly of interfering with the religions of the peoples of India. Cecil Rhodes’ idea, too, of ‘the vote to every civilised man’ is not ignoble for its time, if outdated in ours.

Cause for celebration

And of course, in this year of all years, our curriculum should celebrate the fact that Britain, the country which had the greatest investment in the slave trade, declared it illegal on home soil, and, in the teeth of the slave-owners of the Americas, abolished it.

More controversially, the humane determination to end widow-burning and child marriage in India and witchcraft in Africa are topics which are not irrelevant today.

At a Secondary Heads Association (as was) dinner in the north-east some years ago, a Japanese diplomat discussed the things that bound Britain and Japan together. He mentioned particularly the part that Britain had played in the modernisation of Japan and how Britain and Japan had signed the first treaty between a western and an eastern power as equals. He highlighted the fact that Japanese industry was now happily settled in the north-east.

He did not mention the railway of death or the capture of Singapore and there were some of us who found the speech evasive for that reason. But looking back, it seems to me that he had a point that those of us brought up on war comics of the second world war perhaps missed. If you want to move forward, concentrate on the links from the past, not what divides you.

Additional thoughts

Secondary Headship gave Tony Breslin, chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation, a preview of this article. His response to Richard’s comments on the role of citizenship in the curriculum follows:

The new duty on governing bodies to promote community cohesion recognises the important role of the school in fostering strong community relations and provides an opportunity to promote strong relationships between people from different faiths and backgrounds, both within school and in the wider community.

We agree with Richard Bird when he says that citizenship is the obvious place to support and deliver this duty, but instead of a ‘broken reed’ or an inevitably ‘marginal’ subject, the citizenship curriculum is a statement of the values, knowledge and skills that we regard as sufficiently important to pass on to the next generation. It need only be marginal if we do not view learning about democracy, community and the law as important for our young people.

While Ofsted’s most recent report also noted that much work still needs to be done in terms of training and delivery, it concluded that teaching was satisfactory or better in three quarters of schools, an achievement four years into the teaching of both a new subject and a type of new subject.
It also revealed that where schools visibly identify citizenship in the timetable and in the life of the school, the outcomes benefit not just schools and students but their local communities and the society we all live in. Cross-curricular approaches work most effectively therefore when supporting discrete timetabled citizenship lessons, and are further strengthened through whole-school and community engagement.

Schools can promote community cohesion by developing their students’ understanding of the potential causes of tensions between different communities. Young people are interested in events happening in the news and in their communities, yet research shows that without a safe space to talk about such issues they often feel anxious and powerless.

But these topics can be controversial, complex and sensitive, and teachers can be nervous of stirring up conflict. This is understandable and it is only through effective training and good quality resources that teachers will be appropriately equipped with both the conflict resolution skills and the wider skills and confidence to lead lessons and discussions effectively, and to provide the space for students to develop their understanding of these issues.

The recent recommendations from the Diversity and Citizenship Curriculum Review highlight ways to address these areas from within the citizenship curriculum, drawing on, rather than teaching, history to illuminate the way our own shared traditions and institutions have developed over time and the ways in which these have shaped contemporary British society to allow students to explore what it means to be an effective citizen in 21st-century Britain.

Category: ,