“If we know where we are from, we can know where we are going” – Why identity taught in schools is crucial in a global society

02 April 2019

The Prince of Wales suite at the British Council’s HQ in Spring Gardens, is one of my favourite rooms associated with my career. I have worked from that room for the British Council and presented so many times in there over nearly two decades as an educator. I stood in there again the other Saturday morning waiting for the British Council’s Ambassadors conference to start, looking at the March Spring sunshine streaming in from the windows that overlook Horse Guard’s parade and Admiralty Arch at the bottom of The Mall. Through the windows I could see passing through the arch, groups of people adorned with EU flags and carrying placards as part of the one million plus estimated crowd that marched through London on the same day. My mind flashed back to the same room and view in the summer of 2012 when the World came to the UK and to London to see the incredible spectacle of the Olympics and a view of Britain that Danny Boyle had captured in a remarkable opening ceremony that finally seemed to tie all the strands of history and society together in a confident bundle going forward into the new Millennium and 21st century. I used the clip of men playing cricket in a bucolic scene, Kenneth Brannagh doing his best Brunel impression and flying gigantic NHS beds a number of times in my history lessons to encourage students to think about their identity and their country’s history.  In March 2019, even the carnival atmosphere of the crowds of blue out in Trafalgar Square failed to completely lift the sense of uncertainty we continue to face in a much fractured and increasingly nastier country than the one that celebrated the UK’s confident place in the World in 2012.

I had been asked to close the conference for the educators, policy makers and school leaders in the room and for once my brief to “inspire with the power of global learning” needed much more thought because of the context and climate of 2019. One of the most difficult stories I have been comprehending is the one from Doncaster, a town I used to know very well, where a single Romanian mother with two small children were beaten in a senseless attack by a mixed gang of teenagers because she went outside her home and in a “foreign accent” asked them not to make so much noise. Nothing underlines more the work we still have to do in education and global learning than the sheer awfulness of this attack and the motivation behind it.  I used this in my talk to my fellow educators to stress the task we still face in educating our young people in the universal human rights and values that have underpinned so much of the last few decades in our society, so much to the point we thought they were a given.

Mum battered in racist attack – news article

Another story that perhaps is more hopeful despite the fact it comes from the dreadful tragedy of 50 innocent people, including a child as young as 3, being murdered in mosques in New Zealand simply for their religion. The hope comes from the response of New Zealand society to not let hate prevail and the extraordinary courage and leadership shown by their remarkable Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. I have used the powerful pictures of Jacinda Ardern comforting families in their mosques, homes and communities with my A level Politics and Critical Thinking students to emphasise that extraordinary leadership exists in the World and the values we uphold in our common humanity around the globe are not going to be replaced by the ones of hate, racism and nihilism. The other story of hope going forward to the 2020s is the remarkable movement from young people articulated by the tribune voice of Swedish school student, Greta Thunberg in calling for immediate attention on climate change. An existentialist threat to the whole of the globe and every society with solutions and agency from all countries and people needed now.

But what is clear from the teenagers who attacked a mother over her accent or the people last week in London proclaiming their hate for Muslims and outstretching their arms in a “Roman salute” by the very Cenotaph that symbolises the fight and struggle millions engaged in to stop fascism, is only through education and a clear focus on our local identity linked to our place in a wider globalised World do we have any hope of changing the narrative that seems to be so despondent as our century rolls forward into a new decade. This was never more illustrated to me with the visit to Wyedean last week of the staff and students from Doshisha Kori School, Japan.  I listened to a group of my own students talk with such pride about the Forest of Dean and its history, the borders and the UK but were equally engaged and keen to know about life in Japan and where their fellow global students were from.  It’s not something that is unique and standing in the British Council HQ the other Saturday it was humbling to listen to the incredible global work that is uniting schools and communities from Lincolnshire to Lebanon, Yorkshire to Mexico and Kent to Malaysia. Projects and global linking that has gone on for decades and underpins an approach to curriculum and learning in those schools and communities in parts of the country that could very easily be seen as isolated and introverted as much as the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley can be seen by some. But is also means not having a bombastic and mangled view of a country’s history and being able to be critical about the past as well as proud in what has also been achieved.  I also find it irreconcilable to a basic understanding of what “British Values” are, displayed often only for OfSTED in too many schools, when these same universal values and human rights are not unique to the British.  I will happily teach and make clear the role of individuals like Wilberforce and Noel-Baker in World history and when the British government stood on the right side of history in effectively ending the Atlantic slave trade in the early part of the 19th century.  I am proud of my adopted city of Bristol but I want students and visitors from other countries to know the controversy of a figure such as Edward Colston and the city that still causes heated debate to this day.

But here is the problem. Our education system is not allowing this approach towards curriculum, History, languages and global learning because of the chronic underfunding and politicisation that all major political parties are guilty for causing. Holistic education is not the current policy and the curriculum is reduced to a series of revision sessions to pass a test. Thank goodness the best schools resist this but for how long under the present pressures? What are these pressures doing to the mental health and wellbeing of our young people? Individual educators, schools, school leaders and brilliant organisations like the British Council, continue to support and develop global learning, linked to identity, in the system but this is not systemic. For the last few years we have been grappling with a notion of “Global Britain” and Empire 2:0 whilst phenomenal international schemes like Erasmus are destroyed in the zealotry and counter-reformation against anything European since 2016. The substantive English model of education over the last decade or so has not been copied anywhere in the World.  Let that sink in as a statement. That in itself is extremely telling. Those responsible for education in say Finland or Ontario are not beating the door down to see examples of an exhausted, over-politicised, under-funded, narrowing curriculum, punitive appraisal process, centralised education system that is witnessing educators leaving in droves. The approaches towards school structures and organisations, curriculum, accountability and inspection as well as teaching and learning/pedagogy doesn’t exactly bring the World to the UK to learn and replicate this system of education as a system fit for young people going into the next decade. Even today, the search for solutions to stop and reverse the number of stabbings and murders from knife crimes has been laid back at the door with direct liability to school leaders of already under-resourced schools.  I am always optimistic about the power and agency of transformative education and I made that clear in the examples I used in my closing remarks to the British Council, but when brilliant school leaders like Stephen Tierney leave the profession early and the number of teachers joining the profession and staying in the profession is verging on a national crisis, that optimism is severely tested in even the most panglossian of school leaders. The English education system is not the envy of the World, but it used to be, it should be and it can be again.  But we need to keep our leaders in education to drive this and not force them to leave. The most remarkable dedicated educators and communities are doing great things in learning, giving hope and changing lives every day.  For example, I am really looking forward to working with new teachers and teacher trainees from Kosovo in the next few weeks on global learning and comparative systems. They want to know more about education in the UK and here there is so much we can celebrate in our education. They also illustrate the benefits on educators and their ongoing professional development through global learning. I will commend the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, for speaking out against the protests outside school gates of anti LGBT+ education in our curriculum.  Surely this also goes to the heart of identity in our education system and the days of Section 28 are long gone.  Something we can be proud of and we do lead the way on globally.

As I reflected on some wonderful moments over the years of my career that had taken place in that room in the British Council’s HQ at the end of another very celebratory and positive day of global education from around the UK it re-enforced again in my mind why I am a dedicated advocate of global education and why this approach is fundamental in developing local identity, national awareness and global citizenship in our young people. We need more of it and we need more urgency as we struggle as a country through this very real and damaging national crisis and the example this lays out for our students and their futures in a globalised society. The former Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, famously once said that meaningful education had to have global learning as an integral part of the curriculum. It would be a move in the right direction to return to that approach especially with a broader holistic curriculum, programmes like Erasmus not under threat, less bombast against working with our near neighbours and more energies in getting our young people actively involved in their communities on a much wider level.  Not everything we do in school needs a qualification at the end of it and so many programmes and opportunities that used to bring school communities and their local communities have now gone to the detriment of the societal cohesion that held us all together. I don’t even mind if it is called “Character Education” or “Values Leadership” or “Skills based curriculum” but we need more opportunities for young people to find out more about their identity linked to a globalised world and less education in a meaningless abstract. It’s not Panglossian to want a future where our young people are secure about who they are in the World, having faith in politics and politicians, aware and embracing of the diversity that exists everywhere and can link the two through the cohesion of their national and global citizenship. Now that would bring people from across the globe to see an education system that really does build and prepare for the future.

Rob Ford


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