Put up more maps: An international future for Britain's children

Michael Gove's school reforms must give British children the full context of Britain's place in the world and their opportunities as a result.

Map of the British Empire in Knockbain School, Scotland
Richard Cashman
On 11 July 2011 09:16

With the Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s, schools revolution under way, it is timely to look at what the new educational landscape will actually see Britain’s children being taught about their place in the world.

There seems to be an assumption that schools will dispense with ‘soft subjects’ and refocus students’ attentions on the harder ones of  maths, science and languages, in particular. Here nothing is being left to chance and this approach forms the core of the reforms in train.

It is the status of the humanities more than any other subjects, however, that stands as cause for concern.  

It is the humanities, together with literature, that best provide us with a sense of being and potential. As the Pulitzer Prize winner, Walter A. McDougall, put it, ‘we must all learn geography in order to understand history’.

Indeed, it is only through the study of Britain’s geography that we can understand the country’s course through history. And it is only through our history and literature that we can understand how we got to where we are today and, crucially, where we might venture in future.

For half a millennium Britain has had a history of activity far beyond its narrow shores. No country is more responsible for the dynamics of the global society we inhabit today.

We may talk of emerging powers and the ascendancy of Asia, but the international free trade that facilitates those trends was pioneered by Britain, is regulated by English law and overwhelmingly negotiated and contracted in the English language – the closest thing the modern world has to a lingua franca. This truly does make the world of emerging markets a Briton’s oyster.

Moreover, the political pluralism and individualism that fostered the language of civil and human rights are inextricably linked to the British constitution. As E.H. Carr argued in his perceptive Twenty Years Crisis, this was the legacy inscribed on the baton that the US picked up between the world wars.

60 years ago, it was British policy to make Britain’s schoolchildren well aware of this pedigree. Twenty years later, the shortcomings and mistakes of British history were introduced. This was right and sensible, as it provided children with perspective as they went out into the world.

Today, however, it is more likely that Britain’s children are meek, if not slightly embarrassed, about their country’s history.

There seems to be an assumption implicit in the government’s policy to hand back executive power to schools that, once more in charge of their own houses, headmasters and mistresses will inevitably pursue programmes that hark back, at least in some respects, to attitudes of the past.

There is evidently an expectation of resurgence in selective admissions. In other words, an expansion of grammar schools, or ones that look very similar. Grammar schools have, since the last education revolution of the ‘60s, been increasingly confined to a small number of county strongholds. Accordingly, it has long been a backbench Tory objective to rehabilitate them, and rightly so.     

State-funded, selective schools are the most egalitarian on offer in Britain today. For those who believe in a society that guarantees equality of opportunity, rather than of results, these schools serve as the educational means to that end.

Of course there is ample scope for refining the specifics of entrance examinations and, especially, the transfer mechanisms between local comprehensive and selective schools to ensure a porous system.

This should mean that the ‘eleven plus exam’, or its modern iteration, is not the be all and end all, and that children can both take up and vacate places afterwards depending on their performance.

While many children might be familiar with the story of Henry VIII’s penchant for decapitation and church burning, it is less likely that they will understand the conflict with Rome and Spain that was its context.

While they might be aware of Britain’s travails in Afghanistan today, most would struggle to point to the country on a map, meaning that they cannot possibly understand its geopolitical significance.

It would be disingenuous to ignore the impact Britain’s increasingly mixed ethnic make-up has had on this shift from the patriotic to the generic in Britain’s schools, perhaps for fear of what Lord Salisbury called patriotism’s bastard brother, jingoism.

This is because it would be equally disingenuous to deny the element of exploitation in the imperial control of the countries from which many pupils now derive. However, on balance, the positives of that legacy grossly outweigh the negatives.

Emphasising the positives should be a challenge that British education embraces, rather than shies away from.

In 1942, Evelyn Waugh exhorted Britons to put out more flags. Today we might similarly entreat the country to put up more maps and re-identify with its tradition of rigorously opening childrens’ eyes to the world around them, Britain’s role in shaping it and, most importantly, the plethora of opportunities for them in it. The US still takes this approach. China, India, Russia and many Asian nations are increasingly cottoning on to the can-do attitude.

Introspection is not a place one should dwell a moment longer than necessary. Britain’s education system seems to have pitched a permanent settlement there. It is time to move on.

Richard Cashman is an Associate Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society

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