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Imperial Patriotism in Peace and War: Empire and Elementary School Curricula, 1909-1918

The First World War had a profound effect on the administration of elementary education in Britain and historians have argued that this was also a time when the teaching of the British Empire underwent significant change. Previous studies have focused on how the war can be understood as a turning-point in pedagogical presentations of militarism, patriotism or imperialism, but these studies frequently downplay the difficult educational realities of the war years. Consequently, they tend to obscure the many continuities in the imperial content of elementary education curriculum documents that were in use. Instead, this paper uses the periodisation suggested by a focus on the statements issued by the Board of Education, its Welsh Department and the Scottish Education Department to show that there was a more consistent approach to imperial patriotism articulated between 1909 and 1918. In particular, this research provides evidence of a separation of patriotism (and citizenship) from jingoism and militarism in contemporary educational rhetoric. This idea is corroborated through the illuminating Parliamentary debates that led to government recognition of Empire Day in schools in 1916―an accession that had stalled previously owing to the event’s perceived militaristic overtones. Similarly, the education authorities sanctioned new syllabuses on the teaching of temperance, introduced increased prescription for hygiene and encouraged the inculcation of thrift through war savings work, but they did not authorise use of the wartime propaganda of imperialist organisations in schools.


This paper will therefore use a range of primary sources to investigate how the British Empire, war and patriotism was being presented to working-class boys and girls in the years leading up to and during the First World War. The curriculum represents an important and timely case-study through which to examine the historical development of ideas of nationhood, patriotism and British identity, especially within the crucible of international conflict.