What private schools think about teaching British values

Guardian Teacher Network, 03/02/15,  a ‘sledgehammer to crack the Muslim fundamentalism issue’ or a timely reminder to consider what you teach? Lucy Ward explores independent schools’ response to promoting British values. HMC members John Claughton chief master of King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Ed Elliott, headmaster of The Perse School are quoted.

It was one of the last edicts issued during Michael Gove’s reign as education secretary: schools, including those in the independent sector, must actively promote fundamental British values. The new regulations, which replaced a requirement to encourage respect for such principles, were introduced last September after claims of a “Trojan Horse” plot by Muslim groups to take control of some state-funded schools in Birmingham.

Several months on, and the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris have renewed the debate about democratic values, prompting some independent school headteachers to raise fresh questions over the new rules. They’re concerned particularly at the labelling of respect for democracy, tolerance and the rule of law as British values, arguing that the same principles apply in many countries. There are even deeper reservations for some, with one Quaker school leader arguing that his duty is to teach students to be ready to challenge laws and institutions if they believe they conflict with moral principles.

John Claughton is chief master of King Edward’s School in Birmingham, where more than a fifth of boys are Muslim and the student roll is one of the most ethnically diverse of any UK independent school. “All this talk about British values rather worries me,” says Claughton. “We try very hard to promote fundamental values but I don’t believe the British have an absolute monopoly on respect, honesty, trust or the importance of intelligent questioning. I don’t think Socrates would feel they are British values.”

With his multicultural school, Claughton can find himself negotiating the complexities of differing value systems that might never arise in other schools: one Muslim mother has asked that her son be exempt from sex education lessons, while another has requested that her son does not study music. He says: “I have a very broad spectrum of values and customs and already have to think very hard about what I would deem to be appropriate.”

While Claughton regrets that the guidance is directed to all schools when it addresses an issue affecting only a small minority, he acknowledges a positive impact too. He keeps close links with his school’s Islamic society, but, he says, the new guidance will prompt him to “strengthen that bond of trust” still further and think harder about the diet of ideas his students receive.

At the Perse upper school in Cambridge, headteacher Ed Elliott also regards “the B word” (British) as unhelpful since it risks alienating some groups. While he interprets the guidance “in a fairly benign way”, with much of the content already being discussed in assemblies, tutorials and politics lessons, Elliott argues what is missing nationally is a much wider debate about the values schools should aim to promote. “This is a far bigger debate than just fundamentalism or terrorism,” he says. “Schools and the public should engage as they did in the Victorian period with the values we should be promoting in society to make the world a better place.”

While the world of education is full of rules, regulations and laws, values can be boiled down to a few simple ideas to live by, says Elliott, whose own school has spent the past 18 months devising its own list of core values.

Politicians seeking a quick result may “pull a lever” with school guidance, he adds, “but actually that isn’t going to achieve the result they want. Values are not just set in schools but in the home, by the media. Telling schools what to do is only at best a partial answer.”

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