Michael Gove has ordered all primary and secondary schools to promote British Values in the wake of the ‘Trojan Horse’ story of Birmingham schools. The question this begs is ‘what are British values?’ Cameron’s summary of British Values is, “freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions”. He also said the plan is likely to have the overwhelming support of the British people, although the evidence on Twitter suggests otherwise. Or perhaps, this outburst of snark is simply the purest evidence that satire is the ultimate quality of Britishness.
Is it possible to conflate general civic morals such as tolerance and responsibility with distinctively British institutions and laws? Do the two things combine to create ‘British Values’? Is there a particular quality to acts of tolerance or care because they take place within a certain set of laws, generated and enforced by particular institutions? Many developed countries outperform the UK in their tolerance of incomers, their intolerance of inequality, and statistics relating to crime and wellbeing, so we don’t have a monopoly on high performance of general civic morals.
If the ‘Life in the UK’ Citizenship test is seen as a guide to British Values, it does somewhat clarify the relationship between general values and nationally specific laws. It is a contract – if we are responsible, we can enjoy our rights. It asks us to abide by civic and criminal laws to, in return, enjoy a milieu of freedoms (of belief, of speech, of participation in democracy) and justice.
Baroness Warsi commented, having been raised a Conservative Muslim, that she had yet to see evidence that ‘religiosity equates terrorism’. Of course, they don’t equate to each other. It’s an easy goal to accuse someone of suggesting that they do. However, Gove could be accused of anti-Islamic xenophobia in his talk of ‘draining the swamp’ to expose extremists in schools and communities, as a tactic to root out terrorism.
A proper analysis should really make a distinction between religion as a communal spiritual practice based on mythical interpretations of difficult phenomena and the punitive control of behaviours by institutions or powerful individuals according to strict moral codes. Depending on your perspective, you might perceive both spiritual practices and control of behaviours per se as extreme. Extremism is detectable in the behavioural controls of some societies by many elements of faith groups. It’s usually the social control of behaviours, rather than the spiritual practices, that can traumatise and harm personalities by restricting freedoms of belief, speech and participation. And this, amongst other conditions (e.g. the colonisation or forced migration of people and insecurity of resources), can lead to situations where violent terrorism is seen as acceptable.
Gove thinks that schools are instruments for social engineering and for instilling certain values and behaviours. This fights against his belief that principles of the free market should be applied to state education. In allowing state-funded schools to be free to appoint their own governance and adopt their own curriculum, he has himself in a bind. If state schools of other faiths are instilling his highly rated values of discipline, hard work and academic attainment, riding on his values of a free market, what are the mechanisms to manage the problematic espousal of unacceptable values? He has to resort to ‘draining the swamp’. But he might find himself in it.
Soon after Gove took his post, the Ofsted inspection framework changed so that they no longer assessed schools for children’s wellbeing and pastoral care. They check on safety and discipline, and on RE and Acts of Worship. But, the Every Child Matters framework was dropped as official policy, along with PSHE as a statutory subject and the encouragement to use SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning), and so inspections would become less rigorous about the pastoral and ideological issues that have been raised by the Birmingham schools.
Another dimension of this complex situation is that the majority of our Government were educated at certain kinds of schools – privileged, private and/or boarding schools. This schooled them in what school is supposed to be and the character it is supposed to produce. However, this kind of schooling does not necessarily produce effective people. Psychologist Nick Duffell explains how they produce bad leaders: “children survive boarding school by cutting off their feelings and constructing a defensively organised self…[and] an abandoned child complex within such adults ends up running the show”. He explains how they dissociate themselves from any weak or damaged qualities and project them onto others. Because our state schools are modelled on a longer tradition of private schools, he says our education system is built on the Victorian ‘rational man project’ with “schools as industrial power stations churning out stoic, superior leaders for the empire”.
There is much to draw out from this analysis. The ruling elite model their character and values, which have been constructed in this materially privileged but non-nurturing environment. They then point out the weaknesses of other nationalities or ideological groups that emerge from similarly disciplined or aspirational backgrounds, but with different political values. Another trait of the ‘abandoned child complex’ is to compulsively parade and magnify their virtues while concealing their vices. For example, the Government makes much of their liberalism in enabling Equal Marriage while carrying out many cuts and rulings that push the UK further down rankings for social equality and personal rights and freedoms. (And, incidentally, note how many more remits and ministers for equalities & women than there are for culture, media and sport in the DCMS. One wonders how they can tackle the most significant inequality – economic – from within the culture department). Another example might be in the way that Government talks loudly about the UK as a paragon of democracy, yet our electoral system is one of the least democratically construed in Europe.
If freedom is a core British Value, then shouldn’t state-funded schools be organised to model these core British principles of freedom? Shouldn’t all students be free, within a framework of participatory democracy and civic responsibility, to develop their own moral codes, to speak their minds and to explore and celebrate sacredness? The only way state schools can exemplify these values of freedom is if they are all secular. The Government should exhibit its British tolerance of other faiths by removing the requirement that Acts of Worship should be of a broadly Christian nature, but in turn should not fund any faith group to institutionalise those beliefs into moral codes and teachings. Schools should follow the example of workplaces (across the public sector, and best practice in the private sector) in providing space and time for individual religious practices, and allowing people to express their identity. They could allow students to self-organise communal worship but should not impose it.
However, freedom is not enough on its own. It must be held in check by responsibilities and laws, of course. But it must also be balanced by more relational values that are not acknowledged in the official lists of British Values. The core value that is missing is empathy. I’d argue that this is the new global value we must fast adopt, given our rapidly changing and critical context.
I think one of the best hopes for the UK becoming a more Values-based society is in our capacity for irony and our taste for satire. It shows that we are able to look at ourselves – that we have a cultural tendency towards an enhanced ‘Theory of Mind’. A key role for schools is to help young people become aware of the cultural construction of values, which means reflecting on contemporary issues as much as possible (although these have largely been cut from the curriculum).