Teaching Britishness: A Critical Pedagogical Framework

The teaching and learning of Britishness is once again on the educational agenda. Governmental proposals for schools to teach Britishness arrive on the doorsteps of educational establishments cyclically: In 2007, it was the Labour government calling for the teaching of Britishness in schools, and now in 2014, the current coalition government have re-invigorated these calls by insisting that this is not optional, but that schools must actively promote British values.

My research with two GCSE Art classes and their respective teachers, Ms Anderson and Mr Martin, pointed towards the urgent need to explore student identity by critically interrogating identity issues affecting young people. For their GCSE coursework, the students created self-portraits about their personal sense of British identity. When interviewed, the two teachers highlighted the emotional engagement of the students, for instance the cathartic and meaningful process of exploring identity for some of the students who openly revealed how they experienced local place, social class, race and ethnicity in their exploration of belonging to Britain. The teachers pointed out that the students were very excited to explore Britishness in relation to their personal perceptions, and to discuss notions of British identity with their peers, teachers, and even with their families at home. My research on the teaching and learning of Britishness with two art classes in a south London school highlighted the importance of teachers employing a critical pedagogical approach when exploring Britishness. Students, the teachers recognised, rarely have the opportunity to express aspects of their identity creatively and in a safe space. The two teachers who explored Britishness with their students found that this experience of identity exploration provided students with the perfect platform to express what they had learned about themselves and others, and embrace the chance to have their voices heard. The research showed how the teaching and learning of Britishness in the classroom setting can be approached through a critical pedagogical approach, as this style of educational philosophy and activity is the most appropriate in allowing students to project their ideas and voices. The Critical Pedagogy Reader edited by Antonia Darder et al highlights the importance of understanding how hegemonic social structures and institutions perpetuate positions of power and powerlessness, thereby advocating students and teachers to engage in theories and practices of education that will help rid society of inequalities and injustices.

Schools can be improved if student’ stories and concerns are heard and their ideas implemented in the school policies and practices (Carlile, 2012). A key finding in my research was that the students were enthused about discussing their sense of local place and how their belonging to London impacted upon their sense of British identity. In this case, the school would do well to heed this matter of importance to students and their lives by providing more opportunities in the classroom and the curriculum to engage with issues of place, as well as the intricate connections with social class and ethnicity. The students’ stories imparted concerns about white working class identity being caricaturised by wider society through representation of Bermondsey as a “chav” place, as well as about issues of race/racism that they encountered in their daily lives. Students were open and honest about how they experienced identity issues from their positioning as young Londoners. Their teachers had given them a wide berth, with guidelines about respectfulness towards peers, so that the students were able to have a safe space to express their stories and ideas on Britishness and hear their culturally different peers’ voices at the same time.

The students were able to freely express themselves to the extent that some were brutally honest about their identities and influences. The Head of Art, Ms Anderson, in the interview, pointed out how one of her students in his artwork revealed a pointed gun at his head, which she felt was a recurring symbol for some of the students reflecting a sense of feeling threatened:

Ms Anderson: And then in the background he had the territories of South East London marked out by colour and roads, and he knows exactly which territories belong to which geographical area… which was an eye-opener for me…but yeah…that seemed to be quite controversial in a way… because he was really saying something about himself…and where he stood within it all.

The teacher was able to learn something quite profound about her students’ lives and the reality of their lived experiences as young Londoners in modern Britain. It was staggering what the students felt able to reveal once they understood this was genuinely about their experiences of Britain. Ms Anderson also highlighted how knife and gun crime was a popular topic with some of the students, perhaps because it was topical, but she was surprised that “an equal number almost of girls attempted a piece that had that sort of message within it…I suppose I was expecting that sort of issue to actually come up with young men…but it actually seems to resonate with girls too”. Ms Anderson’ observation is important in highlighting how students, of both genders, are keen to discuss the impact of living in a city where knives and guns are a feature of daily life.

Mr Martin, who taught the other Art class, explained how most of the artwork created by the students revolved around urban London. Mr Martin explained how such revelation about identity is very “powerful” in terms of the “sophisticated” message being communicated by the students independently, as they had not been instructed on what to put in their artwork, but instead they had chosen to communicate their experiences of identity with gentle encouragement. Teachers are not infallible and may make assumptions about their students, but a project on identity challenges teachers’ pre-judgements by giving students the platform to express themselves how they wish to be perceived. Ms Anderson pointed out how she found it interesting that one of the Turkish students, Almas, had not included much reference to Turkey in her self-portrait. Any exploration of identity grants the teacher greater insight into what matters to their students, instead of simply judging students with our assumptions because of how we perceive them to be because we read them as coming from a certain culture. Mr Martin explained that he would like to advise teachers to “really to get to know your students”, as he has found the project “illuminating” from the perspective of their teacher. Further, he emphasised the student-teacher relations that developed through the process of identity work:

Mr Martin: …you really look at them and you think… you know we have a different relationship to when we first started off because I was the scary Art teacher that basically… you know was determined to get them their marks… and they sort of felt “I know him… I’ve had him before… I might be able to get away with this and get away with that…… but we sort of know each other now slightly differently..

The personal nature of the project on identity impacted upon teacher-student relations, as the students responded to the teacher’s keen interest in getting to know their dreams and ambitions. Mr Martin explained that the project provided the perfect opening for the teacher to really get to know his students as the students shared “their ideas, their aspirations, their loves, their hates…”. Mr Martin gained in-depth knowledge of “their abilities and what they are scared of…”. All of the aforementioned factors resulted in the project being poignant and powerful for the teacher and the students, as well as laying down the foundations for the year ahead. Another major success of the project was that teacher assumptions about students’ cultural backgrounds became invalid:

Mr Martin: I think the point is that it actually helped me not to know about my kids make-up… it helped me just to ignore everything I know… such as their religious and cultural background… it’s quite important as a teacher that you sort of stand objectively and you say “Well, you tell me about it. You tell me what it is… If your day involves praying… if your day involves picking up your brother, okay, you tell me about it… because I haven’t got enough information about you…” And that sort of thing… sharing… is a big thing…

Students need guidance, support and regular reassurance that their voices matter. Some students have internalised the idea that the teacher is right and the teacher holds all answers. Mr Martin found that sometimes the freedom granted to the students resulted in their worrying about what the teacher would think and what the teacher wanted:

Mr Martin:… but I think they always found it a bit difficult because they thought “He’s going to mark it… but isn’t he going to mark it from his perspective?… Isn’t he going to say that’s wrong?”… because they were waiting for me to say “You can’t do that! It has to have a flag in it… or it has to have some bit of culture in it…” They were waiting for me to say that… but what I did was… I moved in my approach and I sort of said “You do it. There’s a reason why you are doing it”…

The exploration of Britishness took careful thought and flexibility, as when students wanted to be dictated to, the teachers had to keep changing the lesson in order to challenge and remind the students, sometimes to their frustration, that this was not a project about what the teacher wanted. At times, for example, Mr Martin felt that the students wanted him to tell them what was the right thing to do, for instance to “draw a portrait of themselves with a union jack in the background… a nice cup of tea… and a nice red phone box…”. He found himself having to regularly remind them “No, it’s not what I want you to do”. Mr Martin explained that the project was “an uncovering” both for the students and for himself as he had to continually mull over what to show them and how to challenge them to think beyond simple stereotypes, particularly when some of the students may have wanted very simplistic notions of Britishness to be approved by their teacher:

Mr Martin: … they wanted me to tell them that you know… you’ve got to be White, you’ve got to speak English…

Critical Pedagogy provides the students and the teachers with an educational philosophy that embraces and values student voice, whilst at the same time allows teachers and students to critically interrogate dominant assumptions about social ways of being, in this case about the notion of Britishness. According to the teachers, the students felt empowered to reveal more and more about themselves, about how they felt about belonging to Bermondsey, to London, and to Britain. Students responded enthusiastically to the project on identity because essentially they were being given a chance to communicate identity issues that aren’t elicited often enough in our education system. Both teachers, in my research, had taken a chance on exploring identity in an open and direct manner to challenge the restraints of the curriculum where students do not normally have many opportunities to express themselves, and Ms Anderson stated this behind her rationale of developing the scheme of work on Britishness:

Ms Anderson: I think what interests me about it is how maybe the children don’t get enough chance to… in the educational system to actually express their own opinions, maybe through the fear of the school or the curriculum lighting the blue touch paper and not raising issues that become difficult to manage in the classroom…

She concluded that it was possible to successfully manage a potentially controversial topic in the classroom, as they had done, and were willing to do with the future GCSE classes:

Ms Anderson: …we have experienced is that it isn’t that difficult to manage and that actually allowing them to do a piece of work about it almost gives it a voice and softens it all, and hopefully builds an understanding between the students as well.

Careful and sensitive handling of the potentially controversial and sensitive elements to identity exploration was successful in this case. The teachers enjoyed exploring Britishness with their classes, and found that students gained new perspectives on Britishness by sharing perceptions with their peers. The uncovering of identity issues enabled students to recognise that their voices and views were respected and required. Further the students gained in confidence and independence, as they learned that this exploration of Britishness concentrated on their journey, and it was not an exercise in spoon-feeding them with what to include in their GCSE coursework.

Critical and engaged pedagogy is the way forward to encourage schools, and teachers, to explore notions of belonging and identity with their students. Exploring notions of belonging and identity with students must entail this idea of critical consciousness advocated by hooks (1991, 1994), who was heavily influenced by the writings of Freire (2000). Critical consciousness refers to the awareness we have about how we are products of a society that is prejudiced against many groups (hooks, 1994). Any exploration of Britishness must stay true to the spirit of engaged pedagogy, for “engaged pedagogy necessarily values student expression” (hooks, 1994:20). Students who explore their identity may encounter such critical consciousness as they become aware of how societal values and norms affect their sense of belonging. Education that is liberating is a core concern of Freire and hooks, and my research on identity highlights how exploring identity is significantly liberating for the students and teachers alike, once the initial cautions, about potentially sensitive and controversial topics being raised, have been overcome. An exploration of Britishness need not be a hegemonic act where teachers uncritically impose a dominant discourse of Britishness on their students; instead teachers can work on ways to give students a safe space to express their identity.

The government’s promotion of British identity is often received warily by those working in education, as we suspect that whichever government is in power at the time has its own agenda at play. Some would challenge the government’s focus on discourses of Britishness as blindsiding social inequalities that they should be tackling to make Britain better. It is easy for governments to place blame on scapegoated communities who are seen as not integrating or seen as disaffected, when in reality there are countless inequalities that urgently need addressing and resolving. It is important, therefore, to provide these scapegoated communities and other oppressed groups in society with a voice to express what matters to them as members of society. Critical pedagogy advocates the liberation of these oppressed communities through giving students and teachers a space to develop a critical consciousness and to critically interrogate the relationships between culture, economics, ideology and power (Darder et al., 2009). The impact of employing critical pedagogy in the classroom is powerful as it gives students a platform to present to the world what life is like for young people in London. Generally, when over-worked teachers are focused on getting students through the exams, they may not get to hear about what matters to their students, yet opportunities to explore identity issues gives students that important avenue to express their voice on issues they deem serious and significant. This research project made me ponder over whether we teachers know enough about our students, and whether we have scratched beyond superficial assumptions we may hold about our students due to their gender, ethnicity or religion. If students are given more opportunities to express their identity issues within the curriculum, this will have two worthwhile outcomes: firstly, it will give students an urgently needed voice, and secondly it will allow the student-teacher relationship to flourish.

CARLILE, A. 2012. ‘Critical bureaucracy’ in action: embedding student voice into school governance. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 20, 393-412.

DARDER, A., BALTODANO, M. P. & TORRES, R. D. (eds.) 2009. The Critical Pedagogy Reader, New York and London: Routledge.

FREIRE, P. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, Bloomsbury Publishing.

HOOKS, B. 1991. Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics, London, Turnaround.

HOOKS, B. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York and London, Routledge.

MAYLOR, U. 2010. Notions of diversity, British identities and citizenship belonging. Race Ethnicity and Education, 13, 233-252.


Sadia Habib is a doctoral candidate currently researching British identity at Goldsmiths, University of London.  Prior to this she taught English at Key Stages 3,4 and 5 in Manchester and London.

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