British Island Stories: History, Schools and Nationhood

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British Island Stories: History, Schools and Nationhood

At the time of writing, the newspapers contain articles on a familiar theme. Prince Charles, supported by an array of well-known historians, has initiated what has become an annual intervention in the debate over the teaching of history. The Prince laments what he perceives to be a decline in historical narrative and a lack of emphasis placed in schools upon teaching the ‘great landmarks’ of ‘the nation’. As somebody who has studied every conceivable aspect of this sort of debate for over ten years, these sentiments are very familiar. A whole host of Secretaries of State for Education, from Joseph and Baker, and more recently Blunkett and Clark, as well as the three Prime Ministers in power during that time – Thatcher, Major and Blair - have echoed similar sentiments. They raise all kinds of profoundly complex issues, from what actually constitutes ‘the nation’, as well as how we define ‘landmarks’, to fundamental questions about the purposes and aims of school history.

One wonders, here, about the history curriculum that Prince Charles and his colleagues are referring to when they mention ‘school history’ and ‘the nation’ in the same breath? To the history curriculum in Wales, with its emphasis upon ‘curriculum Cymreig’ and community understanding? Or to the one that exists in Northern Ireland, which emphasises mutual understanding and cross-curricular diversity? Or to the one in Scotland, which has as its core that very Scottish trait, civic awareness? In the words of a recent publication: ‘Whose history is it anyway?’ (see British Council/ESRC, 2003 for an outstanding discussion of this: The Prince of Wales needs to be reminded, of course, that by the turn of the century, school history began to reflect British re-configuration (a process which probably makes the future monarch feel rather uneasy), as each of the constituent parts of Britain developed ‘devolved history syllabuses which…are distinctive and reflective of particular cultural characteristics, political imperatives and historical legacies’ (Phillips et al, 1999, p.154, original emphasis).

The collection of articles in this edition goes to the very heart of the school history/nationhood debate. The first eight were originally submitted to a major conference held at the King’s Manor, University of York between 17-19 April, 2002. Ralph Samuel wrote the final paper in 1990 – it is as pertinent now as it was then. The conference was organised under the auspices of the project British Island Stories: History, Identity and Nationhood (BRISHIN), funded within the Economic & Social Research Council’s (ESRC) programme Devolution and Constitutional Change*. The reference within the project to ‘island stories’ is, of course, appropriated from the late Raphael Samuel who, prior to his death, dedicated much of his life to articulating ways in which historiography had placed an over-emphasis upon the centrality of English history and had marginalised the ‘peripheral’ historical narratives associated with the rest of the British Isles. One of Samuel’s contributions was to emphasise the ways in which these alternative ‘island stories’ makes ‘Englishness problematical and invites us to see it as one amongst a number of competing ethnicities’ (Samuel, 1998, p.28). This type of historiography looks at the nation not in terms of one dominant culture but as a ‘Union of Multiple Identities’ (Brockliss & Eastwood, 1997).

As the ESRC’s Devolution and Constitutional Change Programme recognises, British re-configuration will depend partly upon the influence of ‘past loyalties’, but much of this ‘re-imagining’ of the nation will also ultimately depend upon the perceptions and attitudes of young people. A debate in the House of Lords (Hansard: 27 March, 2000) on the portrayal of national identity within contemporary school history textbooks shows that the debate is complex. Lamentations about the demise of the first person plural ‘we’ in school history textbooks have symbolised the imagined ‘death’ of English national identity. But they have also marked the re-configuration of ‘other’ British identities in a variety of ways and contexts. One writer refers to this as ‘imagining the New Britain’ (Alibhai-Brown, 2000).

Sites of history and national identity

A key question for BRISHIN is: how is British national identity being reconfigured through history, or how is history used as a resource (how is it operationalised?) in pursuit of national identities? Based upon the above, BRISHIN has selected three ‘sites’ of historical representation for the focus of the research:

Site 1: Historiography

The project sets out to analyse the changing nature of British historiography in the late twentieth century. It pays particular attention to the orientations within some of the major works in the (so-called) ‘new’ British historiography associated with historians such as Colley (1992), Davies (1999) and others. The project analyses the ways in which concepts such as ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ have been represented, historically, in these texts and how the relationship between England and the other parts of the British Isles has been portrayed. Thus, in Kearney (1989) the emphasis is upon four-nation distinctiveness; similarly, Brockliss & Eastwood (1997) stress multiple identities within the Union. On the other hand, Davies (1996) and Samuel (1998), from different ideological perspectives, emphasise the changing nature of the centre-periphery relationship, while Robbins (1998) explores the connection between changing institutional structures and nation-building. By theorising about the distinctive ways in which the major works within the so-called ‘new’ British historiography have conceptualised Britishness and the nation state, BRISHIN builds on earlier work (Grant & Stringer, 1995).

Site 2: School history and the politics of the school history textbook

My own History Teaching, Nationhood and the State (1998) demonstrated the ways in which nationhood was contested within school history. Using a combination of documentary and text analysis, as well as ‘elite’ interviews with key personnel such as former Secretaries of State for Education, civil servants and policy makers, the book analysed the politics of the ‘great debate’ over the teaching of history in schools in England. As my own ‘sociology of history’ centred upon the debate in England, the BRISHIN project develops elements of this thesis and applies it to the rest of Britain, for although the history curriculum in England has been described using these techniques, the rest of Britain has not been given such systematic and detailed analysis. The project is also undertaking a systematic analysis of textbooks produced since the inception of the National Curriculum to examine the ways in which ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ are being represented.

Site 3: The ‘great history debate’ & the media

Nelson airbrushed out of history claimed a report in the Daily Telegraph describing the House of Lords debate on history textbooks on 27 March, 2000 mentioned earlier. On 17 April, the Daily Mail claimed the same thing under the title You’re history! Apparently, the ‘great heroes’ of the British (read English) past had been dropped from history syllabuses. These are examples of how ‘the cultural politics of the textbook’ (Apple & Christian-Smith, 1991) and the ‘deixis of homeland making’ (Billig, 1995) combined in the ‘great history debate’ via discourse in the press. Heroes from the past have been routinely invoked in the media as a means of locating and positioning present national relationships around the binary opposition of ‘us’ and ‘them’. BRISHIN analyses the debate over school history, Britishness and identity in the press to explore ways in which images of British history have been represented and therefore to consider their implications for national identity.

Past/Now: theorising history and national identity

A major aim of BRISHIN, therefore, is to theorise, like Furedi (1992) about the relationship between history, the present – and the future. During the lifetime of the project, we want to analyse a full range of sites of historical representation to see how the past is used discursively to produce visions of national identity, to see how these interpretations differ within and across these sites and how they may be changing in response to contemporary events and issues. Using Fowler ‘s (1992) useful phrase, we conceptualise this process as ‘past/now’.

At the heart of the BRISHIN project is a commitment to multi-disciplinarity. We are not concerned with history per se but as I have hinted, how history is utilised in contemporary debates about national forms in Britain. Thus, the first major conference organised by the Project at York last year attracted a wide range of scholars not only from history and education but also archaeology, heritage, literature, sociology and cultural studies. One of the main intentions of the York BRISHIN conference was to encourage collaborative theorising of the relationship between history and contemporary forms of national identity in Britain between educationalists and other academics from throughout the British Isles. The range of papers (over 100) on offer reflected not only the depth of interest in the relationship between history and national identity, but also its complexity.

A major book arising from the conference will be published shortly by Palgrave entitled History, Nationhood and the Question of Britain. The book is extensive, containing 30 chapters covering historiography, heritage and school history and with a foreword by Norman Davies. However, not all the papers offered at the conference could be included and so I am extremely grateful to Jon Nichol and the rest of the editorial board of the IJHTLR for encouraging me to publish some of these papers here, all of which relate in some way to the relationship between school history and national identity. They are all concerned with what I have called ‘border-crossing’ in one form or another: whether theoretical, conceptual or territorial (see Phillips, 2002, Chapter 12 for a further discussion of this sort of ‘border’ approach).

Thus, Low-Beer problematicizes the school history/nationhood relationship by raising issues about the difficulties and challenges involved in attempting to make any history curriculum ‘national’. Significantly, she draws upon British but also European examples to do so. Cullingford places the school history debate within the wider context of discussions over nationalism. Drawing upon his previous scholarly work on the subject, Cullingford explores the roots of nationalism and prejudice from a philosophical perspective.

Barton, McCully and Conway report upon empirical findings of students’ perceptions of identity and national history in Northern Ireland, while Wood’s article stresses the importance of historical knowledge in shaping attitudes to national identity in Scotland. Morgan and Phillips explore the challenges facing the history curriculum in Wales, particularly focusing upon the relationship between Welsh history and British history.

Finally, four articles relate to the issue of ‘race’ and history. Sherwood argues passionately that racism in Britain today is rooted in history by examining the ways in which Britishness was constructed around white visions of identity, rooted in imperial attitudes and assumptions. Continuing the imperial theme, Yeandle gives us a fascinating insight into the representations of empire contained in elementary school history education and textbooks and assesses the impact this was intended to have had on working class configurations of English national identity. Finally, contemplating the future, Wrenn explores some of the contradictions inherent in being labelled ‘black’ and ‘British’ by relating these tensions to the teaching of citizenship within the history curriculum now and in the future. Samuel, in his 1990 paper, addresses a number of seminal issues that relate to individual and national identity and the form and shape of a History National Curriculum that reflects our individual relationships, no matter our ethnic origins, to a collective past.

These articles, as well as Prince Charles’ recent pronouncements, are a timely reminder that what I have called elsewhere ‘the battle’ for school history is pregnant with ideology and hegemony (Phillips, 1992). After all, the debate over school history has not been about ‘the past but the present; its dynamism stemmed from the tension between contrasting discourses on the nature, aims and purposes of history teaching, linked to correspondingly different conceptions of nationhood, culture and identity. One vision of history and history teaching envisages certainty, closure and stricture; the other uncertainty, openness and fluidity’ (Phillips, 1998: 129). For history teachers facing the challenges of meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse, varied and dynamic school populace, Prince Charles’ annual lamentations cut little ice. It is, after all, like Major’s discredited ‘back to basics’ crusade of the early 1990s, a call for what Stephen Ball (1993) has brilliantly coined ‘the curriculum of the dead’. This is a view of education based upon an outmoded perception of what schools in Britain used to be like (‘in times gone by’) rather than what they are actually like in contemporary Britain at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is these realities with which history teachers in real schools and real classrooms have to wrestle.

* The views expressed in these articles (including those in the editorial) articulate the views of the individual authors and not that of the Economic & Social Research Council.

Robert Phillips, Professor of Education, Institute of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University


Alibhai-Brown, Y. (2000) Who Do We Think We Are? Imagining the New Britain London, Penguin.

Apple, M. & Christian-Smith, L. (ed) (1991) The Politics of the Textbook Routledge.

Ball, S. (1993) ‘Education, Majorism and the Curriculum of the Dead’ Curriculum Studies, 1 (2): 195-214.

Billig, M. (1995) Banal Nationalism London, Sage.

British Council/ESRC (2003) Whose History is it Anyway? Brussels, British Council.

Brockliss, L. & Eastwood, D. (1997) A Union of Multiple Identities: The British Isles 1750-1850 Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Colley, L. (1992) Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 London, Pimlico.

Davies, N. (1999) The Isles: a History London, Macmillan.

Davies, R. (1996) The Matter of Britain and the Matter of England Oxford, Clarendon.

Fowler, P. (1992) The Past in Contemporary Society: Then, Now London, Routledge.

Furedi, F. (1992) Mythical Past, Elusive Future London, Pluto.

Grant, A. & Stringer, K. (eds) (1995) Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History London, Routledge.

Kearney, H. (1989) A History of the British Isles: A History of Four Nations Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Phillips, R. (1992) ‘The battle for the ‘big prize’: the creation of synthesis and the role of a curriculum pressure group: the case of history and the National Curriculum’ The Curriculum Journal, 3 (3): 245-60.

Phillips, R. (1998) History Teaching, Nationhood and the State: a Study in Educational Politics London, Cassell.

Phillips, R. (1999) ‘History teaching, nationhood and politics in England and Wales in the late 20th century’ History of Education, 28 (3) 351-363.

Phillips, R. (2002) Reflective Teaching of History 11-18: meeting standards and applying research London, Continuum.

Phillips, R., Goalen, P., McCully, A. & Wood, S. (1999) ‘Four Histories, One Nation? History teaching, nationhood and a British identity’ Compare, 29 (2)153-169.

Robbins, K. (1998) Great Britain: Institutions, Identities and the Idea of Britishness London, Addison, Wesley Longman.

Samuel, R. (1998) Island Stories: Theatres of Memory, Volume II London, Verso.


British Island Stories: History, Schools and Nationhood iconGcse history a (Schools History Project)

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British Island Stories: History, Schools and Nationhood iconBritish Economic and Environmental History since

British Island Stories: History, Schools and Nationhood iconIntegrating Black British History into the National Curriculum

British Island Stories: History, Schools and Nationhood iconUc berkeley Graduate Conference in the History of British Political

British Island Stories: History, Schools and Nationhood iconBibliography of British history, the eighteenth century, 1714-1789

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