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British Educational Research Journal

Vol. 40, No. 3, June 2014, pp. 539–554

DOI: 10.1002/berj.3101

The politics of Britishness:

multiculturalism, schooling and social
Amanda Keddie*
The University of Queensland, Australia

This paper is set against a backdrop of contemporary concerns about Britishness. It explores the
dominant view that unprecedented levels of cultural diversity within western contexts such as the
UK are undermining social cohesion and are attributable to minority groups’ failure to connect or
assimilate with mainstream ‘British’ (read White Anglo) culture. The paper focuses on how these
issues play out for several of the key teachers at ‘Hamilton Court’, a large English comprehensive
multicultural school. Despite the school being a socially cohesive space, these teachers were con-
cerned with students’ lack of affiliation with ‘British’ culture. The paper examines these concerns
through critical lenses that problematise reductionist and racialised understandings of Britishness
and assumptions that associate an affiliation with Britishness with generating social cohesion.
Against this backdrop, the paper provides further warrant for continued critical discussion about
issues of Britishness, multiculturalism and schooling.


I mean there are some children who don’t know what day Easter or Christmas Day falls on
[and] when it comes to—say England will play India in the cricket. Children will support,
they tend to support their native parents or their grandparents. It is a strong affiliation
there. They’ll say to you, ‘In my country blah de blah’, even though they were born here…
so there is a really strong tie to where their family comes from… I think the children are
first and foremost Indian, Afghani, whatever it is, Pakistani, first and foremost that nation-
ality or whatever, rather than British. (Ms L)

These comments are from Ms L who is Head of Teaching and Learning at ‘Hamilton
Court’, a large and highly diverse comprehensive school in England. Her concerns
about minority students’ strong affiliation with their family origins at the expense of
their affiliation with British identity resonate with current anxieties expressed within
broader public and policy discourse. These anxieties are the focus of this paper and
relate to the dominant view that the unprecedented levels of cultural diversity within
western contexts such as the UK is undermining social harmony and cohesion and is
attributable to minority groups’ failure to connect or assimilate with mainstream
(read White Anglo) culture.
The paper focuses on how these issues play out at ‘Hamilton Court’ for several of
its key teachers. Despite the school being a socially cohesive space, a number of the

*School of Education, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, 4072, Queensland, Australia.


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540 A. Keddie

teachers, consistent with Ms L’s remarks, were concerned with students’ lack of affili-
ation with ‘British’ culture. It is not contended here that such lack of affiliation is
unproblematic—the paper supports the imperative of promoting a national identity
around a shared vision of what it might mean to be British. However, it also supports
and reiterates the ongoing significance of problematising narrow, fixed and racialised
views of national identity and assumptions that associate an affiliation with British-
ness with generating social cohesion and conversely, a lack of affiliation with British-
ness with generating social conflict. Contemporary anxieties about national identity
within public and education discourse are impacting on how teachers understand and
approach issues of Britishness, especially in school contexts where there are high
levels of ethnic minority diversity (Osler, 2011). Against this backdrop, the paper
provides further warrant for continued critical discussion about these matters.

Multiculturalism, Britishness and issues of schooling

Rising social fragmentation, polarisation and violence across the western world have,
for many, symbolised the failure of the multicultural project. In contexts such as the
UK, multicultural governance is seen as contributing to this social unrest—from race
and religious conflict and rioting to acts of terrorism. Excessive recognition and
accommodation of cultural difference and diversity within such governance is associ-
ated with encouraging social fracture and segregation and polarising Britain along
ethnic, racial and religious lines (see Home Office, 2001; Fleras, 2009).
Conversations about Britishness have been central to these concerns. These con-
versations are far from new; however the rising social fracture and seeming gulf
between minority and mainstream culture and values across the globe have increased
their urgency. While this urgency has generated many unhelpful myths about issues
of national identity and multiculturalism (myths that have been debunked in various
important reports, see Finney & Simpson, 2009), concerns about multiculturalism
and its association with social fracture and a lack of national unity have clearly
impacted on governance approaches. Certainly, from the late 1990s governance
approaches in the UK have placed greater emphasis on promoting a ‘vision of society’
around national unity and identity. Whereas previous approaches that focused on
pluralism and accommodating minority difference were seen as contributing to social
division, more recent approaches that emphasise what binds communities together
aim to generate social connection and cohesion. These approaches reflect a civic-
rebalancing agenda, where greater social harmony can be realised through emphasis-
ing a stronger commitment to Britishness as a core identity (see Commission for
Racial Equality, 2007; Meer & Modood, 2009; Osler, 2009).
Against the backdrop of these concerns and discourses, schools have become a
major focus. Certainly, it can be said that civic rebalancing through the promotion of
community cohesion is a mandated priority in schools (see Rhamie et al., 2012).
Schools are expected to promote cohesion through the teaching of British ‘values’
and ‘identity’, especially through curriculum areas such as citizenship education and
history (see Osler, 2009, 2011). Such mandates are generating good practice in some
schools. However, in many schools the teaching of citizenship or Britishness has been
fraught and unproductive. One of the key reasons for this relates to teacher

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The politics of Britishness 541

uncertainty about how best to address issues of diversity within such concepts in sen-
sitive, positive and inclusive ways (see Maylor, 2010). Moreover, while most teachers
are broadly committed to a discourse of social integration rather than assimilation
(evidenced in their strong support of notions of tolerance and respect for diversity),
many teachers are deeply sceptical about the idea of promoting Britishness or a dis-
tinctive set of British values (Jerome & Clemitshaw, 2012; Rhamie et al., 2012) and,
indeed, question the assumption that an affinity with nation is necessarily desirable
(Osler, 2011).
This uncertainty and scepticism, no doubt, arise from the difficulties and conten-
tion associated with attempting to define British identity. For Parekh (2009; see also
Crick, 2009) it is impossible to pin down such a nebulous and variable concept not
least because being British means different things to different people. Certainly
research in schools attests to this in highlighting the complexity in students’ under-
standings of, and affiliations with, Britishness. Students identify variously with Brit-
ishness—as they do with other identity markers such as personality, religion,
ethnicity, gender and social class. These identities are dynamic and multifaceted
(Basit, 2009; Osler, 2009; Rhamie et al., 2012). While some students, as with broader
political discourse, define Britishness or citizenship along the lines of shared values,
for others Britishness is more narrowly associated with place of birth and residence
(see Maylor, 2010). Such understandings are also shaped by, and shift in relation to,
particular contextual factors. Osler’s research (2011), for example, noted differing
student perceptions of diversity within working as compared with middle class
schooling contexts and their communities—with more ‘insular’ and ‘racist’ attitudes
from students in the working class context prompting teachers to place greater signifi-
cance on fostering inclusive understandings of ‘British identity’ and ‘Britishness’ than
the teachers in the middle class context where developing an inclusive concept of
‘Britishness’ was not such a pre-occupation because it was accepted as given. The
specificities of context were also seen to play a significant role in research conducted
by Hollingworth and Williams (2010) and their finding (see also Byrne, 2006) that in
comprehensive schools with high levels of minority ethnic diversity, ‘White privilege’
can become threatened and destabilised through ‘the presence of too many raced and
classed ‘others’ (p. 53). The point here, as these commentators point out, is that ‘cer-
tain behaviours (such as affiliation [or lack of affiliation] with Britishness) are appro-
priate or acceptable in different spatial contexts and not others’ (2010, p. 54, see also
Nayak, 1999; Rhamie et al., 2012).
A significant finding revealed in such research is that while Britishness may not be
an inherently racist concept, it does carry racial connotations that impact on the
extent to which minority groups affiliate with Britain. It still seems to be the case, for
example, that Englishness and Blackness are construed as mutually exclusive catego-
ries (see Gilroy, 1987) and that Britishness tends to be presented as synonymous with
and the prerogative of ‘Englishness’ and ‘Whiteness’ despite political attempts to
re-imagine Britishness otherwise. Such racialised views continue to generate highly
problematic assumptions, for example, that it is only minority ethnic groups that
would be resistant to Britishness and who need to be ‘targeted’ in relation to their lack
of national loyalty (Osler, 2011). From this vantage point, the loyalties of White Brit-
ish groups (i.e., those identifying with Anglo-Celtic or Anglo-Saxon heritage) to this

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542 A. Keddie

identity are assumed and rarely questioned in the same way that ethnic minority loyal-
ties and duties to nation are (Osler, 2009, 2011; Maylor, 2010). These views are un-
dergirded by ethno-centric understandings of Whiteness—where Whiteness is the
normative category against which all others are judged. Such understandings are
steeped in inequitable power relations that take-for-granted and sustain White racial
dominance (see Nayak, 2007).
This paper challenges these assumptions. Given prevailing racialised constructions
of Britishness, the paper takes the view, consistent with Modood (2007), that the ‘real
political challenge’ in generating a cohesive and unified Britain lies in ‘the change in
attitudes amongst the White British’ and in fostering ‘the right kind of multicultural-
ism’—one that is not exclusionary in relation to matters of race, ethnicity or religion
and does not see minority group loyalty as incompatible with loyalty to nation—but
that is sensitive to difference (including the different ways in which British identity is
experienced) and respectful of people as individuals and members of collectives that
are significant to them (see also Osler, 2011). From this vantage point, the focus is
not on attempting to pin down or define Britishness as a set of characteristics but on
Britishness as a ‘form of relationship, a way of relating to the country and its people’
(Parekh, 2009, p. 33; Osler, 2011). For Osler and Starkey (2005; see also Osler,
2011), consistent with Modood (2007), this conception of citizenship emphasizes a
common humanity and human solidarity—it is linked to how we feel about ourselves
and our sense of belonging. The open-endedness and malleability of Britishness sug-
gested here is enriching, rather than undermining, of a coherent and inspirational
conception of nationhood. This open-endedness can support, rather than detract
from, the broader sense of belonging requisite to successful multicultural societies
because it is ‘respectful of and builds upon the identities that people value and does
not trample upon them’ (Modood, 2007, p. 150; Parekh, 2009).
These arguments and theories provide a backdrop for critically analysing how
issues of Britishness were understood by several of the key staff members at Hamilton
Court. Despite the school being a socially cohesive space—akin to the sense of
belonging, common humanity and solidarity that characterises the ‘right kind of mul-
ticulturalism’ (Modood, 2007)—a number of the teachers were concerned with stu-
dents’ lack of affiliation with ‘British’ culture. The paper explores these concerns
through lenses that problematise reductionist and racialised understandings of Brit-
ishness and the view that aligns greater affiliation with Britishness with generating
social cohesion. The following outlines the study within and through which this
exploration took place.

The study
The paper draws from a case study of ‘Hamilton Court’—a large multi-faith and mul-
ticultural comprehensive school in England that caters to approximately 2000 stu-
dents. Through interviews, observations and document analysis, the study involved
students, education staff and community members and sought to articulate and theo-
rise productive approaches to addressing issues of equity and diversity. The school is
situated in the greater London area and was selected for its unusually high levels of
ethnic minority diversity and its excellent reputation for catering well to this diversity

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The politics of Britishness 543

(evident in its recent Ofsted [Office for Standards in Education] assessment as an

‘outstanding’ school).
The paper focuses on interview data gathered from education staff at the school
who were selected on the basis of their explicit involvement with and leadership/man-
agement of equity matters. These interviews sought to explore each participants’ role
at the school; thoughts about the school and its climate; descriptions of students; phi-
losophies about equity and good schooling; thoughts about how broader factors of
social change, for example, shifts in community dynamics impacted on the school’s
equity work; and views on the future challenges confronting the school. From the 13
key personnel who were interviewed at the school, the paper foregrounds the voices of
seven senior educators, Mr P (Principal), Mr I (an LEA officer connected with the
school), Ms H (Head of Inclusion), Ms L (Head of Teaching and Learning), Mr C
(Head of Citizenship Education), Ms J (Head of Special Needs) and Ms E (Head of
Religious Studies).
Interview data from 5 of the 10 student participants are also included (students
were selected for participation in the study by key personnel on the basis of their
capacity to provide insight into the issues explored in the study). These interviews
were loosely structured around a series of focus points that were designed to stimulate
discussion around the students’ thoughts about themselves and their relationships
with other students and their thoughts about the school. The paper also refers briefly
to my observations of student relations and interactions during my time at the school.
The data collection period spanned over a period of two months with fieldwork
(a combination of interviews and observations) occurring approximately three days
per week. This length of time in the field enabled me to gain a strong sense of the
school and its climate but perhaps, more importantly, supported a level of rapport in
my relationships with the research participants and a level of depth in gathering their
thoughts about the issues of the study. In particular, the extended length of time at
the school supported a dialogic approach to the research—strengthening the study’s
validity—in particular through affording opportunities for following up and further
exploring particular issues. Most of the education staff and many of the students to
this end participated in two or three interviews—an initial interview with subsequent
interviews and informal conversations serving to clarify my interpretation of their
thoughts and understandings.
The data were analysed in light of the concerns and themes outlined in the intro-
duction. The first section draws on teacher and student interviews and my observa-
tions to paint a picture of the school and community context—a context that (in
contrast with dominant fears that high levels of minority diversity align with social po-
larisation) is characterised by social cohesion and integration. This is a context that
seems to reflect the ‘right kind of multiculturalism’ described by Modood (2007)—
that is inclusive in relation to matters of difference and that reflects a sense of belong-
ing and common humanity (Osler, 2011). The second section illuminates the con-
cerns about Britishness expressed by a number of the key educators at the school.
Drawing on their interview data, this section analyses their anxieties about minority
students’ lack of affiliation with ‘British’ culture with reference to broader contempo-
rary concerns about national identity within public and governance discourse. In this
analysis, the narrow constructions of Britishness that align it with social cohesion and

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544 A. Keddie

unity are problematised. Both levels of analysis draw attention to, and challenge, the
particular racialised patterns at the school (for example, the phenomena of ‘White
flight’ impacting the school and community and ethno-centric constructions of Brit-
ishness) that undermine an inclusive multiculturalism.
It is acknowledged that the voices and stories featured in this paper are only partial
and fragmented representations of issues associated with schooling, social cohesion
and Britishness. Such partiality is particularly salient in how these representations are
shaped by the study’s political agenda—which seeks to challenge narrow and racia-
lised constructions of Britishness. In this regard, the paper does not present ‘findings’
that are conclusive, definitive or generalisable to broader populations. The voices and
stories presented here however do resonate strongly with broader public and gover-
nance anxieties about Britishness and thus are valid in their sense of ‘verisimilitude’.
Notwithstanding, the central aim in presenting these voices and stories is to provoke
further focus and discussion in this highly contentious and important area.

Impressions of the school context

Hamilton Court is situated in a large multi-faith and multicultural borough that is
home to one of London’s largest Asian communities. Immigration patterns over the
past 20 or so years have shifted the borough’s demographics markedly with a steady
increase in the levels of Black and Minority Ethnic diversity to approximately half of
the total population. As with similarly diverse boroughs in London, ‘Hamilton’ has
been at the forefront of debate about community cohesion in light of its diversity and
amid broader concerns about rising social segregation and conflict. Such segregation
is evident across the borough’s communities—but this seems to be largely associated
with the concentration of the ‘White’ British population in particular areas—segre-
gated from the Asian and Black communities which are more ethnically and culturally
diverse. A dominant trend to coincide with the increasing levels of minority diversity
in these communities has been a decrease in the White population (who have relo-
cated to the ‘Whiter’ communities in the borough)—this decrease reflects what is
popularly described as ‘White flight’.
For the principal at Hamilton Court, Mr P, who has been an administrator at the
school for over 20 years, this White flight was apparent in the change over the years
in student demographics and, in particular, the gradual decrease in White students
and reluctance from White parents to send their children to Hamilton—as he
When I first came here… I remember seeing the demographics of the school population
changing before my eyes. By that I mean the older year groups, the majority at that time,
were White children with a slight minority of Asian but as you looked at the lower groups
that was changing. So by the 1990s that had changed… what’s happened is you’ve got
population drift occurring so that certainly happened and I think, frankly, a number of
White parents don’t want their children to come here because of the imbalance that we

The ‘imbalance’ that Mr P refers to here is reflected in the school’s current atypical
student demographics—unlike most schools in Britain, 90% of the students at Hamil-

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The politics of Britishness 545

ton Court are of Black or ethnic minority background. Most of the students (approxi-
mately 40%) are of Indian heritage—identifying as Sikh (20%) or Hindu (25%) and a
large proportion of students identify as Muslim (40%). While the teaching and
administration staff is predominantly of White British heritage, Mr P is of Indian ori-
gin and many of the support staff are from ethnic minority groups consistent with,
and intended to support, the diversity within the student demographics.
Although the demographics of the school and broader community might be seen as
conducive to generating social polarisation along ethnic, racial or religious lines as
reflected in broader public and governance concerns, and to some extent did in rela-
tion to geographic settlement and population drift, in the main, the school and its
local community are socially cohesive places. Hamilton’s crime and safety statistics,
for example, are comparable with (and lower than) the levels of other similar bor-
oughs. In relation to this matter, Mr I, one of the community leaders I interviewed
(an employee of the local education authority who managed an employment program
connected with the school), expressed a view held by many of the study’s participants
about the cohesion of the Hamilton community—namely, that its ‘social fabric’ was
very ‘strong’ and its climate ‘peaceful’ and calm.
Consistent with this view, the school was described by most of the staff and stu-
dents as harmonious in large part a result of the school and community’s high levels
of ethnic minority diversity. For many of the staff, this bore out in the strong presence
of students’ inter-cultural and inter-faith friendships—Ms H’s (Head of Inclusion)
remarks were illustrative:
We are a multicultural/multifaceted school… we are so diverse, the primary schools are as
well so right from a young age that’s the way it’s always been and they mix—friendship
groups are quite mixed. They tend to be quite a mixture of different religions and different
groups within friendship groups.

Along these lines, many of the staff attributed the school’s social cohesion to students
being accustomed to, and thus accepting of, high levels of diversity. In this context,
diversity was the norm—as Ms L (Head of Teaching and Learning) explained, every-
one is included because ‘no one stands out’. Students also saw this ‘normality’ of
diversity within the school and broader community as contributing to Hamilton
Court’s harmonious climate—one Year 10 boy (of White British heritage), for exam-
ple, offered the following typical remark about his friends:
I think everyone mixes… yeah, I think in my group I’m the only White person but that
doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve got two friends that are South African, some are from India…
at my primary school there weren’t many White people either but it didn’t bother me cos I
live in Hamilton, you know what I mean?

Evidence that such relations were socially cohesive was clear in students’ overwhelm-
ingly positive accounts of their friendships ( A. Keddie, in review). Students spoke of
their many friends from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, for example, a Year
10 Muslim girl from Uganda made the following typical comment: ‘I have lots of
friends from different ethnic backgrounds. It’s good because you learn every day from
them’. Another girl (also in Year 10 but from Nepal who described herself as Bud-
dhist) referred to her many friends who were ‘different’ from her, ‘from different

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546 A. Keddie

places, different countries and religions’. This girl explained that she liked the school
because of its diversity: ‘it’s like multicultural and there’s like different people and
kinds of religion and stuff… I like the fact that there’s people from like different ethnic
groups, we just mix with them’. Other students consistently commented on the
school being ‘easy’ to ‘fit in’ because, according to one Year 7 boy (also Muslim),
‘people are different’ and they ‘understand better’. The Year 10 boy (whose remarks
feature above) commented along similar lines that there ‘wasn’t many people who
were picked on’ at the school because being different wasn’t ‘in the minority’.
This sense of cohesion resonated with my impressions of the school climate gath-
ered from my regular observations over the two-month data collection period of the
students’ interactions within classrooms, the playground and particular school gath-
erings and assemblies. In these observations I noted the inter-faith and inter-ethnic
mixing staff and students referred to in our interviews and the generally cohesive and
socially positive tenor to this mixing.
For many of the staff, the diversity of the school and its inter-cultural/inter-faith
cohesion meant that it represented a context of safety for students to, in Mr C’s words
(Head of Citizenship Education), ‘feel safe to express themselves and to be themselves
without fear of being seen as different’. Mr C’s further comments were illustrative:
Well I think it’s a safe environment… an environment where nobody questions why you
are wearing a headscarf, nobody questions why you want to go to prayer and you don’t eat
certain types of food, or, you know, [about] words in your community language that other
people don’t know… people won’t laugh at your parents if they turn up in community
clothes, you know, and all these sorts of things that, if you were by yourself, as a minority
group that didn’t fit in with the White community and was different, then I think you
would find it much harder.

There were other key factors that the staff identified as supporting the school’s
socially cohesive and harmonious climate—in particular the high proportion of stu-
dents from Asian or Indian heritage at Hamilton Court who were relatively class privi-
leged and invested strongly (along with their parents) in education (these students are
sometimes referred to as ‘model minorities’, see Archer & Francis, 2006). The
school’s cohesive social climate was also attributed to its focus on high academic stan-
dards and strict codes of behaviour as well as its explicit emphasis on recognising and
learning about cultural and religious diversity through the curriculum but also
through regular school assemblies and special events. Additional factors related to the
school being responsive to the particular cultural and religious needs of students
through its timetabling (for example, to allow for students to participate in or observe
particular prayer and other religious rituals and cultural traditions) and through its
employment of learning and social support staff of minority ethnic backgrounds to
match the diversity of the student cohort.
Such factors reflect a comprehensive equity approach to supporting the educational
needs of diverse and marginalised students. It is certainly a generative frame to sup-
port teachers to engage with the dilemmas and challenges of working with such high
levels diversity—a focus on high academic standards, for example, can work
towards ameliorating some of the structural or economic disadvantages confronting
marginalised students in supporting their future access to the material benefits of

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The politics of Britishness 547

society while a focus on recognising, learning about and representing cultural and
religious diversity can remedy some of the injustices of misrecognition confronting
marginalised students (see Gerwitz & Cribb, 2008; Fraser, 2008).
Notwithstanding the significance (and indeed, complexity and tensions associated
with pursuing) this equity approach, students’ familiarity with, and accustom to, high
levels of cultural and religious minority diversity within the school and broader com-
munity were seen as a primary factor in generating an inclusive and socially cohesive
climate. It seems, consistent with Osler’s research (2011) that inclusion in this con-
text is a ‘normality’; an ‘accepted given’—culturally or religiously diverse behaviours
(like those noted by Mr C) that might be seen as out of place and ‘othered’ in less
diverse contexts are appropriate and acceptable in this context (see also Hollingworth
& Williams, 2010). Such findings illuminate the contextual contingency of racial and
ethnic dynamics, embedded in the culture of geographic location, and operating
differently within particular sites (see Nayak, 1999; Valentine & Sporton, 2009).
The point here is that these accounts of the Hamilton Court school and community
indicate a dynamics that reflect the ‘right kind of multiculturalism’ referred to earlier
—that is inclusive in relation to matters of difference and that reflects a sense of
belonging and common humanity (Osler, 2011). While notions of Britishness are not
mentioned in these accounts, notions of inclusive citizenship clearly are—in descrip-
tions of the community’s social fabric as strong while also peaceful and calm and in
reports of the school climate as harmonious in its high levels of diversity and its pres-
ence of multi-faith and multicultural student friendships and safe in supporting
students to express their difference.
What perhaps is most concerning in these accounts is the racialised dynamics
within the broader community that have impacted on the school in the form of
‘White flight’ where an increase in the ethnic minority student population has
coincided with a decrease in White students and a reluctance from some White par-
ents to send their children to the school. This sense of resistance to multicultural
and multi-faith diversity adds weight to Modood’s argument (2007) that a signifi-
cant constraint in the creation of socially inclusive and cohesive communities may
be the negative attitudes to integration amongst the White British. These negative
and resistant attitudes are the focus of the next section. Despite overwhelmingly
positive impressions of the school climate and relations, and the generative and
comprehensive equity approach at Hamilton Court, there was a strong concern
expressed by a number of staff about students’ lack of connection to Britishness/
British culture.

Students’ lack of affiliation with ‘British’ culture

While not expressed by all of the key personnel at Hamilton Court, a concern articu-
lated by over half of the staff interviewed related to students’ lack of connectedness or
affiliation with ‘British’ culture. Ms L (Head of Teaching and Learning), Ms J (Head
of Special Needs) and Ms E (Head of Religious Studies), in particular, were vocal
about this issue, and their views are presented below as they share resonance with
some of the key concerns currently salient in broader public and governance dis-
courses about Britishness examined earlier. These staff tended to focus on student

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548 A. Keddie

cultural/religious difference as being incommensurable with ‘Britishness’. The follow-

ing data excerpt from Ms L explains her concerns with students’ lack of connection to
British culture:
It is a personal concern of mine. I don’t blame the school for this—I actually would blame
family background. You can never underestimate the power of the parents… Their parents
are keen to promote and cling on to their heritage [and] basically we live in… a big com-
munity where they can be with their own, and I think therefore they don’t need to assimi-
late because they can identify with people from their own groups… (Ms L)

In these remarks Ms L aligns students’ lack of connection to British culture with fam-
ily background and, in particular, parents’ strong influence on students’ identities in
relation to ‘clinging’ to their heritage. The significance immigrant communities to the
UK place on maintaining links to their homeland is well recognised as is immigrant
parents’ fears that their children’s loyalties to their homeland will diminish on living
in the UK (see Anwar, 1979). While it seems that Ms L acknowledges this signifi-
cance in relation to parents’ keenness to ‘promote … their heritage’, she positions this
influence as problematic—enabled by the broader social/community context where
people can ‘be with their own’ rather than ‘assimilate’ to, or feel a part of, ‘British’
culture. Ms E also linked students’ lack of identification and integration with British
culture to the broader local context where students were ‘cocooned’ and rarely ‘ven-
tured far from’ family and community. For Ms J such cocooning was ‘dangerous’ and
‘polarising’ and meant, in her view, that many of the students had ‘no sense of British
identity and no sense of citizenship’:
I think it’s dangerous because I think groups of people are polarizing in society and they’re
not venturing outside of their comfort zones and we’re creating almost [separate] groups
where people want to go to school, people want to live, people want to work… and I think
that’s dangerous… we’ve certainly got children here, and I can think of a boy that I’m clo-
sely involved with in Year 11, and really he doesn’t have a life outside of his family, the
Gurdwara and school… he doesn’t listen to the British news, he doesn’t know what’s going
on in society… when he goes home his life is around the Punjabi language and he doesn’t
watch British television… he doesn’t speak English at home, and he has no British identity
and no sense of citizenship, and I do see that. (Ms J)

Such concerns resonate with the findings within official reports that depict parts of
Britain as polarised along ethnic, racial or religious lines where people are living ‘par-
allel’ and disconnected lives in communities where a geographic clustering of specific
minority groups has strengthened connections to these groups while also strengthen-
ing disconnection or alienation from the broader dominant White British population
(see Home Office, 2001; Commission for Racial Equality, 2007). Ms J’s description
of her Year 11 student aptly illustrates this thesis and suggests a depth of community
division in relation not only to geographic segregation but also to ‘separate educa-
tional arrangements… employment, places of worship, language, social and cultural
networks’ (Home Office, 2001, p. 9).
Ms L also associated students’ and parents’ lack of connection to British culture
with problematic governance too concerned with political correctness and ‘religious
sensitivities’ and too focused on ‘promoting’ minority ‘rights’ and ‘heritage’ rather
than ‘British’ culture and heritage:

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The politics of Britishness 549

I think it’s a problem our country has, definitely… I think it’s a political failure… we’ve
gone to such an extent of promoting and ensuring everyone has rights in terms of their her-
itage, I think it’s gone so far… that people don’t feel British… they relate less to British cul-
ture, or British heritage, and more to their own… (Ms L)

Ms L’s remarks resonate with the well-recognised criticisms of multiculturalism/

diversity policy and practice in the UK noted earlier where a focus on the recognition
and affirmation of cultural identity is seen as undermining minority group integration
(Modood, 2007; Fleras, 2009). Consistent with these criticisms, and the focus in cur-
rent UK diversity policy on ‘civic rebalancing’ (as Ms L says ‘we have gone so far’ in
recognising minority difference, that ‘people don’t feel British’), Ms L understands
an over-accommodation and tolerance towards cultural difference as a ‘political fail-
ure’ (see Fleras, 2009). Along similar lines to Ms J’s earlier remarks about her Year
11 student, the following comments (that appear at the beginning of this paper) illu-
minate how Ms L understood this failure as playing out in relation to the students at
Hamilton Court:
I mean there are some children who don’t know what day Easter or Christmas Day falls on
[and] when it comes to—say England will play India in the cricket. Children will support,
they tend to support their native parents or their grandparents. It is a strong affiliation
there. They’ll say to you, ‘In my country blah de blah’, even though they were born here…
so there is a really strong tie to where their family comes from… I think the children are
first and foremost Indian, Afghani, whatever it is, Pakistani, first and foremost that nation-
ality or whatever, rather than British. (Ms L)

Consistent with her earlier comments, in these remarks Ms L indicates that stu-
dents’ affiliation with their family or national heritage undermines or hinders their
knowledge about and connection to English/British culture/national identity.
Indeed there is a sense in these remarks that students’ constructions of their identi-
ties as ‘first and foremost’ Indian, Afghani or Pakistani are incompatible or incom-
mensurable with their affiliation with British identity—as Ms L says students
affiliate with these identities despite being born in Britain. Ms E expressed similar
concerns but highlighted how students’ faith-based affiliations tended to conflict
with their connections with Britishness. She explained: ‘students don’t identify as
being British, they identify themselves by their religion… they don’t feel part of the
wider community or the national community and they find it really difficult to
identify themselves as actually part of the wider country’. Ms J and Ms L also
noted students’ tendencies to identify themselves by their religion—they com-
mented on the division that such identifications generated as ‘polarising’ (according
to Ms J) and ‘less tolerant’ (according to Ms L). More broadly, like Ms L, Ms J
was troubled by students’ lack of connection to a particular version of English/Brit-
ish culture:
[Many of the children] have no sense of citizenship… the old adage would be when the
children watch the cricket and they’re not bothered about how England’s doing; it’s how
the West Indies are getting on. But it’s more than that… you know, some of the children
here don’t understand that maybe it’s the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year and the
Olympic Games are here… and I just find that staggering and I also find that it’s harmful,
you know, it should alarm us that we have children who were born here, they’re British
children but they don’t integrate into wider British society. (Ms J)

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550 A. Keddie

Consistent with a civic rebalancing approach, these educators indicate the impor-
tance of students identifying with a distinctly British identity (see Meer & Modood,
2009)—examples of which are symbolised through observing Christian holidays, sup-
porting the English cricket team and knowing about the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee
and the Olympic Games. It is worth noting here that at least one of the other partici-
pants in the study (Mr P for example) was surprised by the assertion that some chil-
dren at Hamilton were not aware that the Olympics were being held in London in the
year of the study. Notwithstanding, the point to be made here is that for these educa-
tors, students’ disconnection with such British/English symbols equates to their lack
of citizenship, their lack affiliation with British national identity and their lack of inte-
gration into British society. For Ms J, it is ‘dangerous’ and indicative of social polari-
It is clear that a sense of disconnection to British culture is a concern to the extent
that it may reflect social alienation, division and disharmony. Feelings of belonging
and inclusion are obviously imperative to fostering and maintaining cohesive commu-
nities and these educators make some very important and valid observations about
the dangers of segregated communities and the potential divisive effects of multicul-
tural governance. It is also clear, however, that some of the presumptions and under-
standings reflected in Ms L, Ms J and Ms E’s remarks are problematic in at least two
key ways. Firstly, they tend to engage with a reductionist and binary view of British
and minority culture and secondly, their comments reflect an assimilationist tone in
their inference that students should become more ‘British’. The sense of cultural
reductionism and binarism in these remarks is particularly evident in Ms L and Ms J’s
conceptions of British identity/culture. Referring to symbols such as holidays, cricket
and the Queen not only reflects a narrow conception of British culture but it is a view
of culture that is racialised in its apparent privileging of national identity along the
lines of geography/tradition (e.g., place of birth, monarchy, pride in British achieve-
ments) rather than values (e.g., democracy, fairness, free speech) (see Kellner, 2009).
Such privileging, of course, cannot be divorced from these educators’ White British
backgrounds—backgrounds that clearly shape how they conceptualise Britishness.
There is a suggestion in these educators’ remarks that greater connection to these
symbols would represent a greater sense of loyalty to Britain—thereby fostering
greater social cohesion or ‘assimilation’. While it is important to acknowledge the
sense of belonging and unity such symbols might represent for some, indeed many,
UK citizens, such symbols are certainly not universal in reflecting how all UK citizens
might construct a positive sense of national identity/unity—thus affiliation to them
will not necessarily reflect greater social connection and harmony. The premise that
Ms L and Ms J (and to some extent, Ms E) seem to be ascribing to more broadly is
that greater clarity in relation to Britishness will generate greater social cohesion and
unity. On this issue Crick (2009) makes an important point—that Britishness as a
national identity (whether defined along the lines of geography/tradition or around a
set of values) does not explain why the UK has held together. The assimilationist
tenor in these educators’ remarks is also problematic—their view is that students’ loy-
alties to Britain should take precedence over their (minority) cultural heritage—that
rather than defining themselves ‘first and foremost’ as Indian or Afghani or by their
religion, they should define themselves as English or British ‘first and foremost’.

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The politics of Britishness 551

These ways of thinking are problematic because they impose a hierarchy that indi-
cates that loyalty to these different identities cannot co-exist.

Concluding discussion
The views and understandings of British culture and identity articulated by the edu-
cators in this paper resonate with broader public and policy anxieties in the UK that
associate social polarisation and conflict with a lack of affiliation with British identity.
These anxieties may be warranted to the extent that they reflect alienation and disen-
franchisement. Also warranted is the contention that social disharmony can be ame-
liorated through engendering greater affiliation with Britishness—to the extent that
such engendering promotes social inclusion and cohesion. As Parekh contends
(2009), while ‘wariness’ should characterise any attempt to define Britishness, Britain
is, nevertheless, in dire need of a coherent inspirational conception of its identity.
The key argument in this paper, in line with much research in this area, is that such
an identity will not be generated through reductionist or racialised ideas about nation-
hood. A more generative and inclusive alternative, as noted earlier (Parekh, 2009, p.
33), draws from a conceptualisation of Britishness as a ‘form of relationship, a way of
relating to the country and its people’. While, this may involve Britons connecting to
a particular set of traditions, this paper attests to the importance of focusing more
broadly on the kinds of relations that will lead to social inclusion and harmony. While
Britishness per se was not mentioned in the educators’ and students’ accounts of
school climate presented in this paper—notions of inclusive citizenship as embracing
diversity, belonging and common humanity were clearly there (Osler, 2011). It is
contended here, and borne out in these accounts, that such enactments of citizenship
are enriching, rather than undermining, of a coherent and inspirational conception of
nationhood—because they are ‘respectful of and build upon the identities that people
value and do not trample upon them’ (Modood, 2007, p. 150).
Rather than attempting to pin down or define Britishness as a set of essential values
or qualities that all must ascribe to or embody, understanding Britishness as a way of
relating acknowledges the multiple ways in which minority groups are connecting
with British society in their own ways. According to Modood (2007, p. 118):
It is very likely that different minorities may seek to reach out to and connect with different
aspects or parts of mainstream society; if they are successful there will be a form of integra-
tion but the overall result will be plural, overlapping forms of integration; not the disap-
pearance of ‘difference’ but multiple forms of integration.

Such forms of integration do not view minority group differentiation and loyalty as
separate from and counter to a sense of Britishness but as part of a national commu-
nity. This community is a ‘cluster of attributes and tendencies, the balance between
them always contested and constantly being reshaped’ (Gamble & Wright, 2009,
p. 6). For Modood (2007, p. 150), this integrated community is ‘not a na€ıve hope but
something that is happening’—an observation which bears out when considering the
harmonious social climate at Hamilton Court. While many of the students may not
connect with some of the symbolic elements of British culture and tradition, they do
seem to be connecting with and taking up important ways of relating that are

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552 A. Keddie

imperative to an inclusive version of Britishness. This is apparent—not only in the

students’ positive accounts of their multicultural and multi-faith friendships but also
—in the view of the school articulated by many staff as a context of safety for students
to ‘express themselves and to be themselves without fear’ (Mr C). In this space inclu-
sive and socially cohesive constructions of contemporary Britishness are clearly at
play. These constructions are plural and reflect overlapping forms of integration—
certainly they indicate that minority loyalties are perfectly compatible with member-
ship of the same civic association (Modood, 2007; Gamble & Wright, 2009).
The concerns about Britishness expressed by some of the teachers at Hamilton
Court are at odds with this version of integrated citizenship and, moreover, with the
realities of social cohesion at the school. They are problematic because they suggest
that students’ affiliation with minority culture is divisive and contributes to social
conflict while affiliation with ‘British’ culture will ameliorate division and conflict.
The lack of evidence that students’ minority group affiliation created social division
at Hamilton Court would indicate that these concerns are unwarranted. To refer
again to Crick’s important point (2009)—’Britishness’ does not explain why the UK
has held together, nor does it validate the belief that by a lack of clarity about British-
ness, the UK may fall apart’ (in Gamble & Wright, 2009, p. 9).
To be sure, the concerns expressed by the educators in this paper were not
expressed by all of the staff interviewed, nor do they explicitly resonate with the domi-
nant views of Britishness articulated by teachers in other research. As noted earlier,
while a diversity of views exist in relation to teachers’ conceptions of Britishness, most
teachers seem to be broadly committed to a discourse of social integration rather than
assimilation (see Jerome & Clemitshaw, 2012; Rhamie et al., 2012). Notwithstand-
ing, it is clear that the concerns featured in this paper do resonate with the ongoing
anxieties expressed in public and governance discourses about Britishness. Moreover,
it is troubling that such concerns are expressed by key lead personnel at Hamilton
who are in charge of managing and addressing issues of equity as heads of their
departments. It is certainly fair to say when considering this study that broader public
and governance anxieties about national identity are impacting on how some teachers
are approaching issues of Britishness in schools (Osler, 2011). With this in mind and
against a backdrop of teacher uncertainty about, and unpreparedness for, addressing
issues of Britishness in sensitive and inclusive ways, there is a clear warrant for further
research and critical discussion in this contentious area.
Certainly the findings of this paper would support Modood’s assertion (2007)
that the ‘real political challenge’ in generating a sense of national unity and cohe-
sion in the UK lies in changing attitudes amongst the White British. Narrow con-
ceptions of Britishness (such as those articulated especially by Ms L and Ms J and
informing phenomena such as White flight) tend to be voiced and enacted by mem-
bers of the White British population (see Kellner, 2009). An ongoing political chal-
lenge then needs to focus on disrupting racialised views of national identity that
associate an affiliation with Britishness with generating social cohesion and con-
versely, a lack of affiliation with Britishness with generating social polarisation. The
matters of context examined in this paper add an important dimension to this chal-
lenge. It appears that the atypically high levels of minority diversity (and the type of
diversity—i.e., a high proportion of Asian/Indian students of middle class back-

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The politics of Britishness 553

grounds) within the school and broader community played a key positive role in
shaping students’ ideas about diversity and social cohesion. In this context, as with
Osler’s research (2011), diversity seems to be an accepted given. Perhaps the
threatening or destabilising of White privilege in this highly diverse environment,
consistent with Hollingworth and Williams’ research (2010), can go some of the
way to explaining the anxieties about Britishness expressed by the teachers in this
paper. The point here is that these anxieties (while shaped by broader public and
governance anxieties) are situated within, and shaped by, the school and broader
community’s particular racial, ethnic and class dynamics. The consideration of
these dynamics is imperative to more fully understanding the concerns and issues of
Britishness presented here. Such consideration (of context, identity and diversity)
will be central to supporting teachers to more productively engage with student dif-
ference and identity in critical, rather than, unqualified ways (see Gerwitz & Cribb,
2008). For this paper, a key imperative of this engagement will be a broadening of
how Britishness is conceptualised to a focus on ways of relating that reflect a sense
of belonging, common humanity and solidarity (Osler, 2011). The positive identi-
ties and relations embraced and enacted by the students at Hamilton Court reso-
nate with this version of citizenship—they are forms of Britishness that reflect the
right kind of multiculturalism.

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