Yesterday’s conference of the Association for Citizenship Teaching contained some heated moments when discussing the British Values agenda.
They happened on the same day that the Secretary of State for Education announced new responsibilities for teachers: to spot early signs of radicalisation in students. This role felt particularly daunting for citizenship teachers: theirs is the subject is most likely to proactively address issues of personal beliefs and political responses. How should these conversations happen now? Isn’t everyone a little less free to talk openly?
The BBC report on the new responsibility also noted David Cameron’s distillation of the task following the terrible atrocities in Tunisia; “we must become intolerant of intolerance’.
This maxim may well ring a bell to those who perceive fundamentalist beliefs as being, by definition intolerant (which may be so in legal terms as they question the practices of those of protected characteristics). But it will mean very little to those of religious convictions who perceive the dominant liberal mainstream (those now trumpeted as having ‘British Values’) to be intolerant of their own principles.
Put more simply – most people now called ‘extreme’ are already intolerant of intolerance. They can no longer tolerate the way that others cannot tolerate their faith. Some are driven to violence by it.
Like the teachers in the room yesterday I find the phrase to be an unnerving use of simplistic rhetoric. It veers towards fighting fundamentalism with fundamentalism. Creating an ‘us and them’ when none is necessary. It is creating a new ‘British Fundamentalism’ where none exists.
British people have never all shared the same values, although we have got a settlement around the way we are governed.
The current duty of schools is to promote fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. This is not the same as rooting out ‘transgressors’ which teachers fear they are now being asked.
Neither does it involve holding the line on some kind of British Fundamentalism: an unwavering definition of what is right and positioning on the outside those who default from its orthodoxy.
The antidote to radical fundamentalism is not a conformist fundamentalism, it is actually doubt.
If anyone is not 100% sure that it’s right to risk their lives or those of others based solely on their beliefs, then they are not so likely to do it.
To sow doubt is to eradicate extremes.
Teachers of citizenship are supremely well placed to tackle extremism, but not by simply proposing the British counterpoint to people convinced by another revealed truth. Their task is to introduce a broad range of thoughts and opinions into the emerging young mind… To foster conversations that don’t put any one section of the classroom or population under pressure to defend their inherited views or primary identities.
No one develops mutual respect and tolerance without first having it shown to their own beliefs.
This government has yet to recognise the implications of its short-sighted undermining of the subject of citizenship. Instead teachers and students are victims of half-baked ideas that bring the cavalry of old school Britishness to the rescue. We already have an intelligent pedagogy and a subject of lasting educational value – stop tinkering and get serious please.