British values?

sibford school communicatorThere has been much in the news recently about the need for schools to teach ‘British Values’. This weekend a report in The Guardian quoted education secretary Nicky Morgan as saying that all schools must actively promote fundamental British values, such as tolerance of other faiths and lifestyles, and law. The report went to say that guidance on the new rules (introduced by her predecessor Michael Gove) will be issued to private schools, academies and free schools this week. These changes to the regulations represent a worrying trend … as Michael Goodwin, head of Sibford School explains …

Sibford School, along with other Independent Schools, received notification on Friday 26th September 2014 of changes to Part 2 of Schedule 1 (Spiritual, Moral, Social, and Cultural Development of Pupils) that were to come into force three days later on 29th September 2014.

There had been a consultation over the summer holiday, when teachers were least likely to be at their desks, but the shortage of the time between the notice and the need to implement left some of us feeling rather breathless.

The first line of the revised standard now charges governors to ensure that schools ‘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…’

The Friends School Council, a group established to support Quakers in education, had argued that ‘British values’ might be replaced by ‘Human Rights’ or ‘International Law’, but this view was seemingly ignored in the consultation

At a time when the British Government is sending bombers to the Middle East, we had a weekend to think what the ‘fundamental British values of democracy’ might actually be. Are British values different from French or Swedish ones? How can governors really ascertain the level of our activity in promoting these values, whatever they might be? Can we look at values without seeing how these are translated into action? And should we really promote an unquestioning adherence to the rule of law?

The Quaker publication, Advices and Queries, would certainly suggest that we should at the very least question the rule of law, and indeed, indicates that we might, on occasion, feel compelled to break it. Advices & Queries 35 states: ‘Respect the laws of the state but let your first loyalty be to God’s purposes. If you feel impelled by strong conviction to break the law, search your conscience deeply’.

Surely it has been the questioning and challenging of the rule of law that has shaped and developed some of the British values that we are now asked to promote. Acceptance of the law would have meant that slavery remained legal, that homosexuality was a criminal offence and that women were wrong to campaign for universal suffrage.

It is not difficult to find modern examples of activity, endorsed by the government, which would seem to breach the demand of the legislation that we ‘encourage respect for democracy’ and ‘further tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions’. The sale of the tear gas used against demonstrators in Hong Kong by UK arms company Chemring is unlikely to be condemned by the government. Indeed, as Sarah Waldron, a campaigner at the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said: “last year’s arms fair in London welcomed some of the most authoritarian regimes in the world and those who profit from their brutality. The deals done here fuel death, injury, fear and repression – yet instead of banning it, the Government helps make it happen.”

I am troubled that those who felt impelled to draw attention to this anomaly were subsequently arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass.

At least the new regulation requires governors to encourage respect for other people, ‘paying particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010’.

How does ‘Freedom of Speech’ — which is surely a British value that all of us could agree is central to our democracy — and the requirement that, in political issues, students ‘are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views’, sit with this insistence that we now have to not only enable ‘pupils to acquire a broad general knowledge of public institutions and services in England’ but that we also have to enable them to have respect for those same institutions and services (though not, by the way, for the Welsh or Scottish ones, which are presumably not deemed worthy of our respect in our British value driven culture!).

While we, of course, want students’ experiences not to be blighted by bigotry, this authoritarianism motivated by a fear that multiculturalism has failed in some of our communities, is not a clear or practical way forward.

I object from a liberal Quaker perspective to the idea that the individual conscience isn’t valued: am I guilty of brainwashing in expressing this principle to my students? I think that one of the strengths of our Quaker schools is that we do not believe we have a monopoly of the truth and actively encourage our students to question ‘authority’. This falls far short of the proselytising that the establishment seems to accept from many faith schools, who can demand, for example, church attendance as a condition of admission.

Janet Scott, quoted in 26.19 of Quaker Faith and Practice, wrote in 1980: “God is revealed to individuals through models suited to their temperaments and abilities; to communities through models suited to their culture. Nor will the interpretation of these models always be the same. Each one is only a guide to the truth that is greater than them all yet accessible in the nearest and simplest way… As our experience widens we are brought closer to aspects of God which we did not understand before. But we are compelled to respect the experience and response of others. If there is no one model of the truth and if no model is essential then there is no basis for authoritarianism or heresy-hunts. Our own vision is widened by the vision of others.”

 

I worry that this new legislation sounds like authoritarianism and could be the basis for heresy hunts. At Sibford, we will hold on to some values that are wider than ‘British’ and might look for our inspiration to human rights legislation and international law. Above all, we hope that we can translate some of these values into student action, including the right to protest.

 

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