Values, British Values, and Educational Tensions

In his blog, 02/02/15, HMC member Dr Richard Maloney, Headmaster of Bede's on British values in education.

Some parents may be wondering why there has been so much talk recently about 'British values'.

Aside from what you might have read in the press, you no doubt have - and will - notice that staff at our Senior and Prep schools are using the phrase more frequently, with the topic becoming increasingly interwoven into both schools' curricula.

Indeed, the theme of 'British values' - and so much more - will be one of the key strands within our fresh, innovative, original and brilliantly conceived new 2015 First Year Curriculum (more on which in the very near future).

Consequently, readers might well think 'British values' to be a straightforward and uncontentious subject.

Last Thursday, I was fortunate to be one of the 100 Group of Heads who met at Kingsford Community School in Beckton, East London for a conference on 'British Values'.

The 100 Group comprises fifty leading state school heads and fifty independent school heads who have a commitment to furthering co-operation between the two sectors and was incepted by the former Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, the Headmaster of Brighton College, Richard Cairns, and Joan Deslandes, Head Teacher of Kingsford Community School.

Why were we discussing British Values? The answer probably lies with the previous Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.

In response to what he and the Prime Minister perceived to be the growing threat of radicalisation of young people by extremist groups, they felt schools had a crucial role to play in addressing that danger. Consequently, the 'Prevent' strategy was launched in 2011 and underpinned by the notion of 'fundamental British values'.

To address the perceived threat of radicalisation of young people, Mr Gove believed that if schools were to encourage pupils to respect 'British values', teachers would help eradicate that threat.

Some commentators felt that the public could be better served by government training their policy lasers on eradicating endemic poverty or constructively addressing cultural marginalisation. Indeed, the coalition might have sought to adopt other more sophisticated - albeit costly - solutions to what Dr Shuja Shafi, the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, called a 'trust deficit' between the government and many British Muslims.

Notwithstanding those other possibilities, it appears that the Department for Education remained resolute that schools teaching British values was the answer to the problem.

Consequently, Mr Gove designated that 'schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs'. What has changed since September is that schools are now required to 'actively promote' these 'British Values' rather than, as was the case, ensuring that pupils 'respect' these values.

A number of heads, particularly in the maintained sector, are concerned knowing that they will soon be inspected on these requirements. Many headteachers remain disconcerted by the apparent glibness of the values and the mechanism by which inspectorates, and in particular Ofsted, will assess the provision in their schools.

Shami Chakrabati, the Director of Liberty, and Dr David Starkey, the high-profile historian and social commentator, were both at the 100 Group conference and raised an intellectual eyebrow at Mr Gove's list of British values.

Shami Chakrabati took the view that the government's list of values could easily apply to any Western Democracy and there was little distinctively British about them, whilst Dr Starkey bemoaned their 'shattering banality'. Richard Cairns, the Headmaster of Brighton College, shrewdly asked why schools were required to only actively promote respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs: indeed, why are we not expected to actively promote tolerance in our pupils' attitudes towards all other protected characteristics such as sexual orientation, race, disability and age?

Shami Chakrabati placed British values squarely in the tradition of fundamental rights and freedoms. Her contention was that, although modern Conservatives might be upset by this reality, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), adopted in 1950, is the best possible statement of British values.

The ECHR was drawn up in the aftermath of the World War II as Europe strove to stave off the future possibility of totalitarianism and dictatorship.

For Chakrabati, the dignity of every human life, procedural fairness (due process), and equal treatment under the law are the cornerstone values. For example, the principle of equal treatment demands that minorities are not subject to discriminatory practices and that majorities are forced to consider whether they would tolerate practices they might foist on others.

David Starkey was, perhaps unsurprisingly, more provocative in his address. Rightly, he placed the notion of values squarely within their historical and cultural context. Values are by necessity localised, particular and time-located - if this is not the case, from where would 'values' emerge?

The thrust of the opening section of his address was that values 'grow' in societies, are mediated through experience, and become implicitly understood by citizens. Thus, the intangibility of values makes it difficult to summarise them in a list. If values are to be taught (which Dr Starkey was not sure was possible or appropriate) their delivery must be through the lens of history.

In his more provocative moments, Starkey went on to place Islam and Islamic extremism at the heart of the debate on British values. For him, free speech, debate and unpicking the tensions at the heart of society were the only ways for values to compete for precedence. It is in this place of intellectual struggle that collective, and presumably dominant, values emerge.

Later, there was an uncomfortable discussion with Dr Shuja Shafi, the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain. When responding to a question, he unintentionally gave the impression that he believed matters of religious conscience to take precedence over the expectations of schools in terms of pupils' behaviour.

Pressed hard, perhaps sometimes too hard, Dr Shafi eventually made it clear that he believed Muslim faith schools were subject to legislation and that all pupils, whatever their conviction, should be expected to follow the requirements of their schools.

Saturday's Guardian carried a lengthy interview with Dr Shafi and it is clear that he has a challenging role. Dr Shafi is not charged with speaking for all British Muslims, nevertheless, he is expected by non-Muslims to do exactly that.

That tension aside, one senses that Dr Shafi believes that the government has failed to engage with Muslim communities and, to some extent, allowed British Muslims to feel disillusioned and patronised. More worryingly, he feels that the entire Muslim community is being unfairly treated with suspicion because of the actions of a minority.

On Thursday, Nicky Morgan, the present Education Secretary, told parliament that she planned to extend the role of counter-extremism in schools. On Saturday morning, Dr Shafi was quoted by the Guardian as saying - rightly - that the Muslim Council of Britain is 'not a counter-terrorist organisation'. Equally, good sense also suggests that schools too are not counter-terrorist organisations; however…

Whether one agrees with Shami Chakrabati or not, she and Liberty are assuming an increasingly important role as the conscience of the nation. Chakrabati helped the 100 Group to understand the potential of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill presently being fast-tracked through parliament.

Within the Bill is the provision for new powers that will permit the Secretary of State to direct a range of public bodies, including schools, universities and local authorities, to take steps to 'prevent people from being drawn into terrorism'.

Schools most certainly have the responsibility to educate their pupils for civic life. Young people need to understand British political and social history and the nature and workings of government and its associated institutions. Educators have an ethical duty to help pupils assume personal social responsibility and actively participate in democratic life.

We are also obliged to help young people understand and exercise their right to free speech in a reasonable, thoughtful and civilised manner. However, there can only be confusion if the government's underlying objective is for schools to act as proxies for the security services by making teachers responsible for identifying and eradicating extremism.

At the 100 Group Conference, I sensed a number of heads discomfited by this emerging tension. Education should be concerned with enabling young people and the job of schools is to help prepare balanced and sensitive human-beings enabled to live fulfilling and productive lives, with those lives framed in positive relationship with people of all backgrounds and affiliations. The process of personal, moral and social education requires trust.

If young people - especially young Muslim people - sense that their schools in fact have a dual role as educator and as agent of the security services, things will not play well. Complex issues require complex thoughtful solutions, and singling out communities whilst misusing schools' moral purpose is not especially clever.

So, in the end, it seems that teaching British values is really not that straightforward after all.

By Richard Maloney, Bede's