The report into the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools has led to a predictable knee jerk response from the government about the teaching of British values. This instant, badly thought out reaction becomes policy from this September. So, Mr Cameron, what do you think we do in school all day? And while I’ve got your attention, could I just point out that your thinking on this is very muddled. You don’t seem to know your culture from your values.
As Russell Hobby points out when reflecting on the speed of this ‘initiative’, teachers may well be ‘quite sceptical when a politician makes a statement in response to a crisis. They’re never thought through, never debated, the crisis goes and a different one comes but the requirements on schools don’t end.’ The overwhelming response of most teachers to this may also be, ‘What’s new?’ because values are part of what we teach, by example, by discussion and throughout the curriculum, day in, day out. This was articulately pointed out by humanities teacher Tomislav Maric in his letter to the Guardian.
His letter also raises a more significant question, though. What are British values and who defines them? This is where I suspect that Mr Cameron loses the plot. He talks about ‘a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law.’ So far, so good. But he then goes on to say that these things (presumably because they are enshrined in the Magna Carta,the nearest we’ve got to a national Constitution) are as British as ‘the Union flag, as football, as fish and chips.’ And don’t forget to add warm beer and cricket on the village green. You are so, so wrong, Mr Prime Minister. You don’t seem to know the difference between values and culture. And while we’re here, what exactly should we teach if, in September, Scotland votes for independence and the Union flag will overnight become the disUnion flag?
There’s also a worrying jingoistic undertone to all of this. Because what he actually describes are human values. Is he suggesting, as I think he is, that Britain is the originator of human values? Maybe he’s suggesting a ‘muscular’ return to the days of Empire when the dominant culture told everyone else what to think.
But the reality is that we live in a pluralist society. Every time a new culture enters our society, we absorb a little of it into our way of thinking – and thank goodness, in the case of what used to pass for British cuisine, that we do. Food and music aren’t defined as ‘fusion’ for nothing. But regardless of what we eat, what music we listen to, what we wear or how we speak, the values of honesty, integrity, respect, freedom, and liberty bounded by personal and social responsibility are human values. They underpin a whole range of cultures, not just the British version.
And in closing, just a thought about ‘teaching’ values. We teach facts. We transmit information. We cannot teach values. Like beliefs, they are a deeply personal interpretation of the facts we encounter. We process those facts through our own uniquely personal filter system, a product of our life’s experience to date. Teachers create a context in which values can be discussed, questioned and pondered on. But we cannot teach another human being what to believe.
So until September when a new set of guidelines will arrive in our schools, we’ll just carry right on, doing what we do every day, modelling those very values that Mr Cameron et al want to claim as A Very British Affair.