‘The English/British Conundrum’: empire and nation in early-twentieth century elementary school curricula

‘The English/British Conundrum’: empire and nation in early-twentieth century elementary school curricula

This week, PhD student Jody Crutchley (University of Worcester) advocates a four nations approach for the study of education and identity in the early twentieth century.

In Ben Thomas’ recent blog post, he emphasises how use of a four nations approach has been particularly productive within the history of the British Empire. Not only does this framework help to recapture the various connections that Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England had with the British Empire, but it also demonstrates that their identities were consolidated, and developed, by these imperial experiences.[i]In a similar way, historians of education also make a significant contribution to four nations scholarship, and the study of identities, in their discipline by recovering educational similarities and differences between the British nations—most frequently through the adoption of national parameters of study.[ii]Yet, despite this, recent research into the teaching of empire in British elementary schools has still tended to concentrate on the English experience. Although not inherently problematic, the focus on England is complicated by the findings of these studies. In particular, studies of elementary reading books, inexpensive primers that were commonly used to teach reading in classrooms, have identified that the British Empire was taught in these texts through the lens of the English national story and a specific, and exclusionary, narrative of the English national past.[iii]As Peter Yeandle points out, the contemporary synonymy of ‘English’ with ‘British’ that these lessons contained effectively reproduced the imperial philosophy in which England consciously represented the greater whole; an apparent equivalence that he has labelled ‘the English/British conundrum’.[iv]

I would like to suggest, however, that the conflation of the terms ‘English’ and ‘British’ in early-twentieth century teaching of the empire can be challenged by adopting an approach that also considers what was taught outside England. An opportunity for this kind of investigation into elementary school content is presented by the devolved nature of state-provided curriculum policy. Although there was no ‘national curriculum’ before 1988, the 1902 Education Act provided for increased state jurisdiction over an extended, and increasingly compulsory, elementary curriculum. Responsibility for the production of annual Code of Regulations, which prescribed this desired curricular policy, lay initially with two departmental bodies: the Board of Education for England and Wales and the Scotch Education Department (renamed the Scottish Education Department in 1918). After 1905, each of these central education authorities also issued supplementary curricular guidance to schools under their jurisdiction in the form of detailed Suggestions to Teachers and Memoranda, respectively. In 1907 the Board of Education created a subordinate Welsh Department, which also, subsequently, began issuing its own versions of the English Code of Regulations and Suggestions to Teachers. Owing to the limitations of space, in this blog I will focus on two examples of how rhetoric evident in elementary school curricula issued in Scotland hints at a more complicated picture of the intended teaching of empire and nation in early-twentieth century Britain to that outlined above.

First, from 1903, the Scottish Code of Regulations for Day Schools specified six studies, as well as reading and writing, which it was ‘of concern that all the pupils should know’, no matter what their future occupations were to be. Although it is important to note that not all of these subjects were intended to be studied by all Scottish pupils, the fifth subject was: ‘The Empire- its history, growth and trade; our Colonies and the opening for enterprise which they afford.’[v]This presentation of empire implicitly borrows from the potent Scottish educational myth of the meritocratic ‘lad o’pairts’, the idea that a poor, but hard-working, boy could aspire to the highest positions in society through the development of his natural talents, inventiveness and ingenuity in an accessible education system. Scottish involvement in the British Empire offered significant opportunities for the realisation of economic advancement. After the Treaty of Union in 1707, Scotland had been full partner in the largest free trade empire in the world and had become heavily associated with the commercial opportunities of the British Empire including the tea trade in Ceylon, supplying metal for the Indian railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway project.[vi]The appropriation of these imperial opportunities within the Scottish educational trope of self-improvement therefore highlights an attempt to teach empire within exiting Scottish educational traditions and, as Robert Anderson has suggested, this kind of presentation therefore allowed for the assertion of a Scottish identity within a wider imperial identity, without recourse to England.[vii]

Second, the 1907 Memorandum on the Study of History in Scottish Schools was a document issued by the Scotch Education Department intended to offer guidance to ‘teachers and managers in the framing of their syllabuses’.[viii]This document is particularly noticeable for the distinctions it constructs between Scottish, English and ‘British’ history. Scottish history was given the most prominence and it was argued that it should form the basis, and the majority, of historical study in the primary school as ‘the child’s initial experience connects directly with that history [of Scotland] and that history only’.[ix]Although English history, particularly before the Union, was recognised to have had a direct bearing on Scottish history, further historical study of England was distinguished as a separate ‘history of the sister country’. Developing from this disjunction of the two national pasts, the guidelines then posited British history as the ’subsequent blending of the two histories in that of the United Kingdom’, a formulation which implied parity between each components’ contribution and one that is in direct contrast to the ‘slippage’ between the teaching of ‘English’ and ‘British’ histories that Heathorn and Yeandle have found in English elementary reading books.

From these brief examples, therefore, it is possible to see some of the limits that a narrower focus can put on the study of the historical teaching of empire and nation in Britain. Rather than a monolithic teaching of the English national story of the British Empire, a four nations approach may help to recapture the more nuanced presentation of empire within curricula that seems to have been in evidence in the early twentieth century.

[i]John M. MacKenzie, ‘Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English Worlds? A Four-Nation Approach to the History of the British Empire,’ History Compass Vol. 6, No. 5 (2008), pp. 1244-1263.

[ii]For example, see Gareth Elwyn Jones and Gordon Wynne, Roderick, A History of Education in Wales (University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 2003); T. G. K. Bryce, W. M. Humes, D. Gillies and A. Kennedy, Scottish Education, Fourth Edition: Referendum (Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2013).

[iii]Stephen Heathorn, For Home Country and Race: Constructing Gender, Class and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1880-1914 (University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 2000), esp. pp. 85-140.

[iv]P. D. Yeandle, ‘Lessons in Empire and Englishness: Further Thoughts on the English/British Conundrum’, in Helen Brocklehurst and Robert Phillips (eds.), History, Nationhood and the Question of Britain (Palgrave: Basingstoke, 2004), pp.274-286.

[v]Scotch Education Department, 1903, Code of regulations for day schools, with appendixes, by the Lords of the Committee of the Privy Council on Education in Scotland, Parliamentary Papers [Cd. 1492], p.51.

[vi]John M. MacKenzie and T.M. Devine, ‘Introduction’ in John M. MacKenzie and T.M. Devine (eds.), Scotland and the British Empire (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2011), esp. pp.1-4.

[vii]Robert Anderson, Education and the Scottish People 1750-1918 (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1995), pp.193-220.

[viii]Scotch Education Department, 1908, Scotch Education Department Memorandum on the study of history in Scottish schools, Parliamentary Papers [Cd. 3843], p.iv.

[ix]Ibid, p.10.

Jody Crutchley is a PhD student at the University of Worcester. Her research focuses on the role of empire in elementary school curricula between 1902 and 1931.


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