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Promoting “British values”

English Defence League march in NewcastleThe recent affair of the alleged extremism of some Birmingham schools has revived debate about “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. Back in 2011 the Home office had already defined extremism as active opposition to these values in its Prevent Strategy.

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” suggest teaching history as national propaganda? 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. If the “British values” in question are “democracy” and “tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”   then calling these values “British” is like describing paying taxes and obeying the law as “British”. There is nothing specifically British about these things. Others worried about them before there was a Britain. 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?

Finally, we need to ask 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, the “strong national story” approach lends itself to a narrow view history. We need history well taught, not a “strong national story”. And while developing moral sensitivity should undoubtedly be a key part of education there are very different ideas about what this means. We should want children to understand and think about moral issues. If the task is treated as one of “promoting values” this can all too easily slide into a doctrinaire imposition of values which stifles moral development. There should be no room for confusion of this sort.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the blog of the Socialist Educational Association

Image credit: English Defence League march in Newcastle by Gavin Lynn CC BY 2.0


  1. Chris says:

    North East Infidels? Don’t these people know that infidels is what people used to call Muslims?

    1. Gerry says:

      Instead of focussing on vacuous debates on British values, how about dealing with the REAL issues raised by the rapid spread of Islamic fundamentalism, here and all over the planet from Iraq to Brunei to Nigeria to China to Chechnya to Syria to Nansen School in Birmingham?

      David Selbourne, in his recent brilliant New Statesman article about the victory of Islamic fundamentalism, put it all into historical perspective – the next 100/200 years is going to see the (maybe permanent) defeat of Enlightenment societies, and the victory of religious fundamentalists of all kinds, but mostly Islamic.

      He ended the article by predicting that “world history may well be written under the supervision of a caliphate”…the sheer scale of the real threat to us all posed by Islam’s many supremacists is still not understood, or worse, ignored, and this silly debate about “British values” is just that: a silly debate…

      1. Robert says:

        I think we will have a war with these people, maybe it last a few years but they will be defeated.

        The idiots who think bombing will get anything will find they will be looking at a UK which will demand they leave and if they are born here, then a choice.

        But the Muslims will not take over the world, at the moment we have the Tories and the Tory Lite party with Miliband and Cameron two of the weakest leaders I’ve ever seen.

        But hopefully in the coming years the Muslim the catholic well the whole lot of them had better ease off, because we are heading for a show down with religions and the zealots.

  2. PoundInYourPocket says:

    I thought the DWP were located in Britain, but somehow these “British Values” seem to have escaped them.

  3. James Martin says:

    The thing the Tories need to answer on this is that under the last Labour government we established ‘Citizenship’ as a stand-alone subject, and one that even came with its own dedicated GCSE. There were even lots of specialist Citizenship teachers trained, again with stand-alone Citizenship GCSE’s.

    The theory behind this was good. An explanation of democracy, voting, politics (big and small p) and various social issues. A number of unions also encouraged local activists to offer themselves as speakers who could go into schools and explain what unions were (absolutely vital in the absence of big union struggles that have traditionally been their own education for new generations).

    Citizenship could and should have been the obvious answer in schools to the issue ‘British values’. However, it was an optional subject that came without funding. Most schools did not take it seriously, most did not offer the GCSE (so pupils did not take it seriously) and it has tended to be a minor addition to PSHE (sex education as was), as that’s another subject rarely taken seriously due to not being part of league tables.

    So Labour got the implementation wrong, badly wrong, and this has allowed the Tories (who were always suspicious of it – trade union activists and Labour councillors in schools were never going to be their favourite education issue – to continue to see it wither, and to the extent that now it seems to not even be part of the British Values debate even though it is an obvious route to cross-party support to how issues like democracy can be taught.

    In its place we get reactionary Tory ideas of jingoism and all the associated crap that goes with it – and Labour shadow education ministers again left floundering as they can’t even understand the basics of what is needed in schools due to a continuing destructive policy of ignoring teachers and their unions who could actually tell them.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I agree that the introduction of citizenship was a good idea and also that it was poorly implemented. The Tories were only too keen to dismantle it. Unfortunately though I don’t think that jingoism is confined to the Tories and that was the point of my questioning of the “British values” talk.

      I am not saying that Denham contribution was jingoist. He clearly does not want to fall into that category. What I am saying is that his language and concepts place him on the same grounds as the jingoist instead of making a thorough critique of their position. Why attribute to Britain things which are not specifically British? Why can he not talk of the values we want to live by and which we share with others around the world. The failure to see it this way is an indication of the weakness of Labour’s internationalism.

      I think that many developments in our society especially its increasing fragmentation make this a really important issue. I regret that it is one that can excite almost no discussion on the left (among which I cannot count the rants against Islam in this thread).

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