Should schools promote “British values” – a debate?Posted: July 1, 2014
One response to the accusations of extremism against some Birmingham schools has been to revive calls for schools to teach “British values”. Michael Gove has issued draft changes to the funding agreement for new schools that would require commitment to “the fundamental British values” of (1) democracy, (2) the rule of law, (3) individual liberty, (4) mutual respect and (5) tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs. Already, back in 2011, in its Prevent Strategy, the Home Office defined extremism as active opposition to these values.
On 25th June 2014 John Denham initiated a House of Commons debate on “British values and teaching”. In his opening speech he said that people tended to divide into two camps: (1) those supporting the government’s approach; (2) those who reject the idea of British values. Not fitting into either group, he said he felt a need for debate.
John Denham agrees with the government’s aim “of promoting British values” but is concerned that it has spent much of the last four years undoing the good work going on in schools (e.g. on citizenship) and that its emphasis on “constructing a legal basis for intervening in schools” is likely to be counter-productive. He criticised David Cameron’s rejection of “state multiculturalism” while putting nothing in its place. He argued that multiculturalism had been successful in “promoting respect for difference and in tolerance for new communities” but that it had “failed to emphasise or develop what we hold and value in common”. It had been clearer about what new communities could expect than what was expected of them. For this he blamed “value-free multiculturalism”.
The idea that schools should teach our “national story” was to the fore in John Denham’s speech (he used the expression ten times) and on this he is on the same page as Michael Gove, Conservative Home and the Daily Mail‘s Melanie Phillips who are also keen on the idea of schools promoting “our national story” as a basis for social cohesion, and presumably for the teaching of history.
John Denham advanced five recommendations for teaching “British values”. The Government should: (1) fill the gap left by their opposition to multiculturalism by endorsing the idea of nation building by means of a strong national story and shared values: (2) focus less on legal notions of British values and instead provide teachers and schools with the powers and resources they need to do the job well; (3) set out a simple test for all publicly funded schools—faith, community, academy or free—that they should be required to maintain an environment that is genuinely open and welcoming to all students of all backgrounds; (4) promote “strong national values” which should be restored to their proper place in the curriculum and inspected by Ofsted; (5) recognise the importance, not just of teaching national values, but of young people exploring and shaping them.
The difference between these ideas and those espoused by the government seem to me to be a matter of degree rather than kind. There is agreement on the idea that schools should work for social cohesion by promoting “British values” and telling a “strong national story”. The difference is about how this should be done. On that level I have no doubt about the validity of Denham’s criticisms of the government’s legalistic approach. Nevertheless, his general stance seems to me to prompt at least the following questions.
1. Doesn’t a “strong national story” imply a value-laden approach to history? It suggests a history taught with an eye to the moral to be drawn from it about who we are. If not, then what is the force of the “strong” in “strong national story”? And what exactly is a “national story” as opposed to a plain history of the nation?
2. After reading his speech several times I have little idea what he understands by “British values”. If he cannot be specific about this, then how can it be recommended to schools that it is something they should be teaching? It is difficult to distil anything more than Gove’s five points from what he says.
3. Isn’t describing “democracy” and “tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” as “British values” like describing paying taxes and obeying the law as “British values”. There is nothing specifically British about these things. Others worried about them before the formation of the British nation. Now we share those concerns with people around the world. Why would we want to call these things “British”?
4. Having schools that are equally welcoming to all children does not sit well with them having independent status nor with creating more faith schools, both supported by the Labour Party. John Denham proposes “a fresh look at how we ensure that students in mono-cultural or mono-faith schools” can meet and socialise with those from different backgrounds. Is this not a case of dealing with effects rather than looking to causes?
And then there is a fundamental pedagogical issue about what is meant by teaching values. Without greater clarity than that offered by John Denham this can easily slide into indoctrination. Despite his welcome recognition of the multiple and fluid nature of identity, his analysis and recommendations lack the depth and detail needed to avoid that. We need history well that is taught, not a “strong national story”. Schools should not “promote” values but should instead help young people to develop a critical awareness of them as a basis for thinking for themselves.
A response from John Bolt
I would argue that there is in fact a substantial difference between John Denham’s take on British values and how they should be addressed in schools. For example he states very clearly that values evolve and that one purpose of education is to enable young people to “shape the values they will share in the years to come.” For Denham, this is not about the story of the white, male British state. It’s about “how we came to be sharing this land”.
No one is suggesting that any particular values are unique to Britain. But it seems to me entirely valid to talk about the values that we hope will underpin our society. Whether other countries share them or who first thought of them is immaterial – the point is that they are the ones we are striving to identify and live by in this country. That is the sense in which they are British.
The left ought not to give up on these issues for fear of being tarred with the neo-con agenda personified by Gove and Phillips or because the British state has much in its history of which to be ashamed. We must aim to be better that we have been and if we are to achieve that we need to embrace the values that we need to underpin that ambition and reject those that led us into bad places in the past.
In my view, schools are most certainly in the values business. At the simplest level, they expect pupils to demonstrate through their behaviour that they understand that bullying and stealing are wrong. We oppose forced marriage and female genital mutilation in the end because of values. When I taught in the ILEA in the 1980’s, our work was underpinned by a very clear set of values about anti-racism and anti-sexism. Yes, we want children to be able to explore issues for themselves but we don’t come to it from a value free perspective. Children are not in the end free to become misogynistic bullies.
It’s clearly true to say that faith schools bring an unhealthy element of segregation into our society. But even without them, we would have a problem with mono-cultural schools. There are still plenty of pretty white bastions out there. The Cantle Report into riots in northern cities a few years ago demonstrated clearly the level of de facto segregation driven by housing patterns that exists in too many places. Short of bussing, the answers are not simple.
History too is very far from being value free. When David Starkey writes about the monarchy, he does so from a value-driven perspective. When Christopher Hill wrote about the revolutionaries of the 1640’s or E P Thompson about the formation of the working class, they too were informed by their values. Simply choosing what to write or talk about in history is a judgement based on values which is why the history curriculum is such a very political issue.
The left has tended to shy away from any debate about what happens when values collide within one society. Asking, for example, whether or not cultural relativism trumps gender equality has often led to a rather embarrassed silence. The Labour government’s Equalities Act gave us some answers as to where our priorities should lie – so B&B owners can’t discriminate against gay couples because society’s values trump their personal ones. But the debate is very clearly not over and it’s not surprising that one speech doesn’t give us all the answers.