The British Values discussion is maturing – but still doesn’t feel like it is ‘of the people’

Today’s Daily Telegraph carries a more insightful look at the teaching of British Values than the initial debates.

Discussion of the topic is maturing – no longer characterised by the Secretary of State firing warning shots into the air around Birmingham, but now a serious statement of intent from a government that originally resisted the teaching of citizenship only to repurpose it with this phrase. At least with the recent Ofsted guidance for SMSC and British Values there is a little more detail to help schools comprehend the intention of its creators.

Yet with such a poorly considered national curriculum programme of study, with negligible resources in the DfE to support citizenship, and with no mention of citizenship education in the SMSC guidance, teachers are still floundering to find a fuller comprehension of what will amount to good teaching in relation to British Values.

This is a dangerous vacuum. Or more precisely a vacuum in which dangerous things may happen if better guidance isn’t forthcoming; suggesting how to deliver the proposition effectively.

As it stands there is still way too much room for misinterpretation of the content.

Pertinent example – some may assume that ‘British Values’ are the long-held moral norms that established the tone of our culture – indicating boundaries of acceptable civil conduct. But this assumption may fall apart when students tell their teacher that our blasphemy laws were only repealed seven years ago. So what’s not British about the offence of blasphemy? And why can’t it then apply to Muslims?

Trying to find the Britishness is part of problem. The principles mentioned in the guidance relate to values that are common to most modern secular democracies. Not uniquely British at all.

Two practical snags for practitioners as things stand though:

The first is evident in the prescription from Ofsted. We are not being asked to teach about British values, but to make citizens willing to participate based on them: this sounds uncomfortably like a doctrine of compliance. To illustrate what I mean these are extracts from the document showing what a British student is expected to do:

1.  Respect different people’s faiths, feelings and values

2.  Respect the civil and criminal law of England

3.  (be) Willing… to participate in… volunteering

4.  Accept… the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberties

5.  (have) attitudes that allow (you) to participate fully… in life in Modern Britain

6.  (be) Willing… to participate in… cultural opportunities

7.  (be) Respect(ful) and Tolerant… towards different religious, ethnic and socio-economic groups

The list appears to demand that schools inculcate these values, and warns that Ofsted are coming to make sure that they do. It contrasts greatly with the original citizenship curriculum, which emphasised the cultivation of an independent-minded individual with the skills and capabilities to engage in democracy based on their own judgement and preferences. It taught citizenship, not British citizenship. A bit like we teach maths, not British maths.

Now the immanent risk is that a school will try enforce a degree of compliance and the student will either conform or affect compliance in order to satisfy top-down expectations. Neither of these necessarily helps students to develop their own mind and values, particularly if they arrive at school with a loyalty to another set of values.

For a start then teachers need guidance on how the school is expected to help unpack a student’s hitherto unchallenged assumptions. But once that as been done the student will then be expected to assimilate a new perspective if their existing values are at odd with Ofsted’s list. That last sentence makes uncomfortable reading.

Which is where we come to the second snag for teachers: where should  the great British tradition of critical dissent come in? The kind of moral capability our Prime Minister lauds when reminding us that the abolition of slavery was one of the country’s great achievements, whilst conveniently forgetting how good we were at it. Here things get sticky in a country with leadership dominated by the elite who now demand the promotion of British values.

The British elite – be they landed gentry or elite-by-access bishops – are often imagined as the arbiters of British Values, after all they had uncontested privilege in the House of Lords for most of parliament’s history.

Yet will schools be challenged if their students do not manifest tolerance to those of lower social class in the same way we expect religious pluralism? (see rule 7) How will Ofsted test this?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Is the word ‘Chav’ used as a pejorative term in the playground? If so has the school introduced a policy of anti-elitist bullying?
  • Does the school encourage the celebration of all successes and not just broadcast the achievements of those on their way to universities?
  • Does the school challenge the perception that a person’s value can be measured by the amount they earn or have inherited
  • Are any students left feeling that their household is democratically marginal as it depends on benefits so has less right to participation?

Indeed – a broad set of expectations that schools will foster willing citizens is a poor second best to citizenship taught well. It is fraught with tendencies to preserve the status quo rather than stimulate social mobility based on democratic opportunity. What we need from the DfE is clear guidance, standards of best practice, support for specialist input, and a professional willingness to apply their guidance even-handedly rather than perpetuate disillusioning perceptions of the elitist state.

After all – who wants to adhere to the values of that?

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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