“Are you British or Irish?”
Growing up in Northern Ireland I used to dread this question. If I felt brave or cheeky I would proudly state that I was both but this rarely satisfied my interrogators!
Schools and childcare providers now have a duty to actively 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. However, there is much uncertainty about how to do this, particularly when defining our values as “British” potentially alienates huge swathes of people in the UK who don’t identify with being British first and foremost. People like me.
A recent report from Coventry University’s Centre for Peace, Trust and Social Relations noted that British values is one of the most problematic elements of the Prevent Duty for schools, not least because “defining values in terms of their Britishness…is potentially hindering rather than helping engagement.”
And yet Ofsted place significant weight on the importance of British values. Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman recently stressed that schools need to do more to stop terrorism by properly promoting British values and not just put up “pictures of the Queen.” Definitive examples of exactly how to do this are hard to come by, not least because Ofsted don’t want this to become a tick box exercise.
So how can schools and childcare providers effectively promote fundamental British values within their settings?
Firstly, this shouldn’t be new territory. Schools have always been required to respect these values in order to improve the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils. Only recently has there been a duty to “actively promote” them.
In my view, this focus on Britishness facilitates lazy interpretations of values. Some lists suggest that children should be encouraged to listen to British music like Freddy Mercury or they should eat roast dinners at school! By all means, schools are welcome to display union flags and celebrate the Queen’s birthday but this merely pays lip service to what British values are trying to achieve.
Implementing British values is actually pretty straightforward. In many cases, schools are already doing it because they are perfectly compatible with existing aims and core values. For example:
Democracy – This is about ensuring that every student has a voice that is heard and respected. School councils are a fantastic example of this. As a governor at a local primary school I was recently observed our school council interviewing applicants for a teaching post. Their feedback was valuable at the final decision-making stage and each member of the council seemed to walk a little bit taller as they left school that day. Even in nursery settings, taking turns, free choice sessions or voting on tasks through a simple show of hands demonstrates active participation in democracy in a sensitive and sensible way.
Rule of law – All schools should promote acceptable standards of behaviour. Even simple activities like tidying up reinforce this. Learning about the British legal system and welcoming guest speakers from the police, fire service and local politics can also promote the rule of law.
Individual liberty – This may seem like a lofty goal but ultimately it’s about building pupils confidence and self-esteem, making them feel valued and empowering them with feelings of responsibility towards their peers, the local community and beyond. Accepting pupils for who they are, displaying artwork, encouraging charitable giving and establishing community links are simple ways to promote this.
Mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs – It is vital for schools to promote diversity, inclusivity and challenge stereotypes. Pupils should be aware that the freedom to hold other faiths and beliefs is protected in law. Visits to religious places of worship can encourage respect and equal treatment of others.
Once British values are understood as common sense, straightforward goals, educators can consider innovative and creative ways to embed them and link them to existing school values.
Through the effective promotion of British values, schools and childcare providers can build resilience to radicalisation and other safeguarding issues. Lessons around PSHE, citizenship, and critical thinking are key to this. British values are not intended to stifle debate. After all, the Prevent Duty expects schools to be “safe spaces in which children and young people can understand and discuss sensitive topics, including terrorism.”
Some people have reasonably suggested that British values should be renamed. Common values, human values, universal values all seem like sensible suggestions. But to be honest, I don’t really care what the values are called. I’m more concerned about what they actually are. Getting bogged down in debates about definitions can be a distraction from the important business of implementing and embedding positive values that encourage young people to become confident, tolerant, respectful citizens in a modern society.
Whatever you call them, that’s what British values are about.