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What is the value of teaching British Values? - Alex Warner

09 June 2022

If you’re visited by an Ofsted inspector one of the things they are duty-bound to look out for is the highly-ritualised idea that certain positive social traits are being upheld in your institution.

First described in the earliest iteration of the Prevent Strategy to combat radicalisation, the so-called fundamental British Values are: “Democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”

Similar lists exist elsewhere. The Nolan Principles of Public Life are supposed to be followed by both elected representatives and government employees. They are “selflessness; integrity; objectivity; accountability; openness; honesty; and leadership”. In Scotland this list has two further additions of “public service; and respect”.

It's not hard to agree with these values – in fact it would be pretty tricky to defend a position which took issue with any of them.

The question is, why are any of these particularly “British”? The French extol “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” as their own national watchwords. Americans revere their constitutional right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as well as economic freedoms.

It’s a pretty safe bet that these kinds of moral concepts and obligations would be recognised and supported in most cultures across the world. So, what precisely makes them British?

This is not to denigrate Britishness or patriotism in any way. Actually, my concern is that we do ourselves down, make ourselves look insular and small-minded, and offend others in the sense that by calling these “British” values we imply that these high-minded ideals are not shared by others.

Similarly, there is a problem with the word “fundamental”. Fundamentalism has taken on a whole different meaning in the public consciousness in the past two decades, and its use is surely inappropriate in a phrase which is supposed to denote positive values.

The other concern with the terminology is that being British today is not the same thing as it was even in 2011, when Prevent was launched, and less still than when Lord Nolan first set out his report in 1995.

In recent elections we’ve witnessed political parties which support the break-up of the United Kingdom make significant strides. In England there has been a dramatic increase in the idea of English identity and nationalism. Whether these are good or bad things is not at issue here, but the fact that they are the prevailing conditions in which we work should give us pause for thought.

Another concern with this is the “do as I say not as I do principle” which currently applies. When politicians are investigated for breaches of lockdown rules or allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment, how can we tell educationalists they must inculcate respect for “the rule of law” in their charges?

When village sub-postmasters are thrown in jail because of a lack of accountability with Post Office IT systems, how can we demand “honesty”?

When a school is forced to apologise because they didn’t realise police officers intended to strip search a fifteen-year-old girl, or where women don’t feel they can trust a male police constable in case he’s set on attacking them, how do we insist on the teaching of “public duty?

Of course, there are wonderful examples who can be used to illustrate these ideals. The Queen sitting alone at her husband’s funeral or President Zelenskyy’s astonishing courage in Ukraine. Marcus Rashford campaigning to stop children from going hungry. Sir David Attenborough’s indefatigable campaigning for the environment, learned, persuasive and polite in equal measure.

There are myriad instances of all those ordinary and otherwise unsung people who make up the bulk of each Honour’s List with their dedication to charities, community projects, youth sports and the like.

The uphill struggle teachers face is that these examples of “good, principled behaviour” are so easily drowned out by the bad.

It would be easier in many ways to teach a different set of principles, for example rules only apply to “ordinary folk”; charity begins and ends at home; the more senior you are, the less likely you are to be held to account for bad behaviour and, do whatever you want so long as you don’t get caught… they weren’t sorry when you didn’t know.

So, let’s just stop calling them fundamental “British Values”. Why don’t we call them something like “Principles for Life”? Why don’t we broaden the concept of tolerance and respect to include those cornerstones of the ethics of further education like equity and fairness for all, regardless not just of religion but gender, sexual orientation, race, background and so on?

Shouldn’t there be something in there about helping those less fortunate than ourselves, or about the value of community or the importance of participating in democracy? Surely, in a world where climate change is likely to transform the lives of everyone on the planet, we must teach something about sustainability?

Most of all, let’s rid ourselves of this national exceptionalism and the unspoken underlying conceit that being British somehow makes us more principled or decent than people from other countries. The walk from self-justifying national pride to xenophobia is a short one.

Not taking that path is surely a principle to which we can all adhere.

Alex Warner is deputy group principal at Milton Keynes College Group.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.