Talk of 'British values' is making waves in the world of education. Great Britain has often prided itself on its moral superiority over 'lesser breeds without the law'. But perhaps our 'values' haven't always been as pure as the driven snow. One tawdry example will suffice. The Daoguang Emperor of China was rather fed up with the his country being flooded with illegal imports of opium by British merchants. He dispatched experienced Qing official, Lin Zexu to stamp out the drug trade. Lin promptly rounded up the smugglers and impounded 20,000 cases of British-owned opium. The response of Whig foreign secretary Lord Palmerston to this outrageous violation of free trade was swift and brutal. Two ships of the line, two frigates and two flat-bottomed steamers were dispatched, plus transport vessels with the capacity to carry six or seven thousand troops. The aim of this bristling flotilla was to blast the Chinese authorities into submission. Palmerston's gunboat diplomacy worked. The Daoguang Emperor's feeble junks were no match for the likes of HMS Nemesis, an iron warship armed with rocket launchers and 32-pounder guns. And so it was that British opium once more flowed into China and from thence into the veins of its users, ruining countless thousands of lives. A fine example of 'British values', free trade and all that, or a shameful episode in our history? What do you reckon?
It was the furore over the Birmingham 'Trojan Horse' that affair led to a call that all schools should promote 'British values'. Defined as:
Interestingly these 'values' were first set out as being distinctively British as part of the government's 'Prevent Strategy' in 2011, designed to combat Islamic extremism (see here). Given what happened in Birmingham, one might be tempted to say that this strategy was none too successful in preventing the spread of extremist ideology. Undoubtedly something must be done at a number of levels to stop schools being infiltrated by Islamic extremism. Ofsted has questions to answer here, as schools it had previously rated Outstanding are now in Special Measures because they failed to protect students from being exposed to extremist ideology. Local Authorities did little to stop the rot despite complaints from Headteachers concerning the conduct of governors who were bent on imposing Islamic beliefs and practices on non-denominational schools. Not to mention the failure of the Department of Education to prevent academies sinking into a swamp of extremism. There are signs that what was uncovered in Birmingham was merely the tip of the iceberg, with similar issues coming to light in schools in Bradford and Tower Hamlets. But whatever their own failings in this area, the main response of the education authorities to these cases seems to be that of ensuring all schools promote 'British values'. And that is the matter to which I give attention in this post.
The very idea of linking values with nationhood is of course risible. As the sorry episode at the top of this article shows, our 'values' have not always been noble and true. Democracy in the sense of the right of all adult citizens to elect a government that is 'of the people, by the people and for the people' has not yet been in operation for a hundred years. In the heyday of British Imperialism 'the rule of law' sometimes meant little more than, 'Britannia Rules the Waves: buy our dope, or you're toast'. In any case, labeling the five 'values' as being in some sense uniquely British is an insult to other nations who hold to them as proudly and tenaciously as we ourselves. Are Johnny foreigners' values somehow substandard? No doubt the American, German, French and Australian peoples to say no more might resent such an implication.
That the five listed 'values' are prized in Britain as well as other lands is the result of a complex number of factors including admiration for the democratic ideals of ancient Greece, the impact of the Christian faith on western culture, notions of tolerance and freedom developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and so forth. The very notion of uniquely 'British values' is misleading and ever so slightly chauvinistic.
However they are labelled in terms of national ownership, it is now the duty of governors to make sure that the five core values are being promoted as part of their school's SMSC and PSHE curricula and also that students are taught about different beliefs in their Religious Studies lessons. Governance should operate on democratic principles, including the regular election of Chairs and Vice-Chairs, collective decision making and ensuring a separation of powers by maintaining the strategic/operational divide. Governors should be subject to the rule of law, working within the legal framework of the education system. They should model 'mutual respect' as people of different faiths or no faith work together in pursuit of the common good of their school.
It would be difficult to argue that school children should not be taught the importance of the five core values. Helping young people to understand the importance of democracy and the rule of law, and promoting a tolerant attitude towards those who may differ from us is all part and parcel of preparing them for adult life in modern Britain. However, problems may arise when measures designed to prevent the spread of extremist Islam are imposed upon schools where that is hardly a pressing danger. Overzealous Oftsed inspectors may be as interested in a school's commitment to political correctness as in assessing its Pupil Achievement or Quality of Teaching. Signs of that happening are already becoming all too apparent, here, here and here. What about 'tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs' when it comes to schools with a faith-based ethos that, while noting the legal redefinition of marriage and making their students aware of it, continue to teach traditional marriage as the norm? What about the 'individual liberty' of governors, senior leaders and teachers when it comes to such matters? Are seemingly binding guarantees that were given when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed worth the paper they were written on?
The five 'British values' are perfectly unobjectionable in themselves. But there is a legitimate concern that they may be used as a mask for a secularising agenda that is designed to squeeze faith-based views out of the education system. If so, where does that leave Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who voted against same sex marriage on the grounds of her faith (see here)? Will one of Sir Michael Wilshaw's PC hit squads soon be paying her a visit? I think not. Sauce for the goose isn't always sauce for the gander.
We're in a right Pickle when the Christian faith that helped shape so-called 'British values' is in danger of being sidelined in favour of hard nosed secularism. Some have used the 'Trojan horse' saga to argue that all state-funded schools should be made to forsake their religious ethos. But if history is anything to go by forcing faith out of public life doesn't guarantee that mutual respect and tolerance will prevail. That's not exactly what happened in Robespierre's France or Stalin's Russia now, is it? If the promotion of 'British values' in schools is policed in a doctrinaire and insensitive way, measures intended to safeguard liberty and tolerance could have the exact opposite effect. How un-British would that be?