Should schools teach British values? Ask the Quakers

The Guardian, 18/02/15, Different schools have wildly different ideas about what ‘values’ to embrace. We visit a Quaker school, where students are taught to ‘speak truth to power’. HMC member school Sidcot features.

Twice in one day at Sidcot school in Somerset the children discuss the meaning of peace. At the morning meeting for worship, the largely silent Quaker version of a religious service, children pipe up in response to a prompt from a “junior elder” – the closest thing here to a prefect. Voices chip in around the hall: “no war”, “respect”, “harmony”, “love”.

Later I join a year-6 group as Ellis Brooks, a peace educator from Friends House, Quaker HQ in London, leads a game about conflicts (“my fists go like this”, says one girl as she screws up her face and hands and describes the urge to hit another child).

The school is one of nine independent Quaker schools in England (US President Obama’s daughters attend another one in Washington). Today at Sidcot they are building a centre for peace and global studies, comprising four yurts in a field. Peace is the theme of the day.

According to the students I meet – a tiny proportion come from Quaker families and many are atheists – the values of simplicity, truth, peace and equality are inescapable here. They are “ingrained into the syllabus”, as 13-year-old Clara puts it. Jessica, aged 17, adds: “In my economics lessons the teacher will pull out the Advices & Queries [Quaker pamphlet] in a really effective way.”

Along with the Quakers’ focus on peace comes the importance of “speaking truth to power” and questioning and challenging authority. This is not an easy idea to teach, and seems increasingly out of step with a trend in mainstream schools for strictness and deference. But at Quaker schools, where last year’s first world war centenary focused on conscientious objectors, children are taught that sometimes the law is wrong. “If you think laws are wrong, you should search your conscience,” Paul Whitehouse, Sidcot’s chair of governors, tells me over scones in the school’s firelit drawing room.

“Certain things define us,” says headteacher Iain Kilpatrick, “and the meeting for worship, when we have 500 people in one space for 20 minutes, strikes me as distinctive.” Governor Rosemary Carr says Quaker principles “run like a red thread through everything we do”.

That Quaker schools objected when the government announced last year that all schools would be required to promote “fundamental British values”, including “the rule of law”, was unsurprising. The patriotic emphasis, and what Kilpatrick calls the “creeping militarisation” of education, is at odds with their pacifism and focus on human rights.

What was less expected was the extent to which their concerns were shared, with many accusing Whitehall of a power grab following the Birmingham “Trojan horse” debacle.

Responses to an independent-sector consultation (including academies and free schools) on the new requirements to promote British values were overwhelmingly hostile. While many fee-paying and religious schools pride themselves on having a distinctive ethos and offering an education that goes beyond the classroom, plenty are uncomfortable with the idea of the government measuring this through inspections. Recently, the Catholic writer Cristina Odone clashed with the shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, on television when she stood up for unqualified teachers by saying the nuns at her convent had taught her “values”. Should schools teach values? And if so, which ones?

One of the spurs for the introduction of academies, originally championed by Labour, was the idea that schools would be liberated from a one-size-fits-all model, seen by some as having held back progress. Gaby, the 18-year-old head girl at Sidcot, says values at the state school she attended before moving to Sidcot “were possibly non-existent, maybe push yourself?”. Tristram Hunt speaks with enthusiasm about character education and “British spirit”, suggesting he shares the government view that something is missing from our classrooms and curriculum. But what is it?

Andy Thornton, chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation, says “education has always been about shaping citizens, there’s nothing new about this”. But he says teaching values or character to the privileged intake of a fee-paying school such as Sidcot, or Wellington college, where wellbeing is a timetabled subject, is different from teaching them at a multicultural urban secondary school. The campaign for citizenship education, he points out, was launched by a lawyer who encountered young people caught up in the criminal justice system “because they didn’t know what the law was or how it works”.

Ian Wybron, of thinktank Demos, is leading a two-year pilot to test whether character-building works. He says “values do come into it. It’s all very well having capabilities and obviously we care to what ends these are put – it would be bizarre not to. But there’s a risk that teaching character capabilities such as self-regulation and social skills, for which there is strong evidence, gets mixed up with ideas of Britishness.”

Champions of comprehensive education argue the entire notion of ethos and values is mainly a smokescreen for snobbishness. “The vast majority of parents choose comprehensives and the idea they want schools to teach values is highly questionable,” says Selina Todd, vice-principal of St Hilda’s college, Oxford. “Perhaps by saying ‘anybody can come here who lives in the local area’ comprehensives are doing something profoundly radical. They are saying people have to learn to live together. Could they do with shouting about this more? Well, most of them are very proudly comprehensive but governments are not prepared to shout about them. We’re consistently told that selection – whether between schools or within them, with setting and so on – is a good thing.”

Ruby, a 17-year-old pupil at Sidcot, says: “I believe in anarchy and it feels great to be in a school where everyone is free with their choices.” Another student points out that you would struggle in any school, Quaker or not, if you didn’t adopt certain basic principles, such as respect for authority and for other people.

Ian Wybron, of Demos, agrees that values in the education system, whatever politicians say, are hardly a novelty: “We have to have to be very careful. The vast majority of schools would say ‘we have clear ethics and codes, we encourage X, Y and Z’. It’s good to have a conversation about the values we want in our schools, but most schools have a lot of this in place and we’re in danger of overlooking that.”

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