British Values, says Ofsted*, are ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs’.
But these abstract values mean different things to different people. For some, British Values are Christian values; to others they’re secular ones; to historian David Starkey
they include ‘queuing, drunkenness, nostalgia, loving pets, self-loathing, wit and eccentricity’.
The British Values as defined by the Government* can be subverted: fine words can clash with reality. Democracy can become mob rule and populism. The rule of law can only exist by consent – bad laws can be (and perhaps should be) resisted. Individual liberty can become selfish individualism – a self-centred disregard for other people’s freedom. Liberty can be compromised in the name of security – mass surveillance can protect but it can also monitor. Mutual respect and tolerance seems in short supply when people claiming benefits are dismissed as ‘skivers’ or when MPs bay in approval when the Prime Minister tells a woman MP to ‘Calm down, dear!
’. On the other hand, mutual respect and tolerance can become lazy shorthand for not challenging that which should be challenged.
And there’s the rub. One person’s idea of what is acceptable can clash with another’s. The ritual slaughter of animals, for example, is in the news again. Is it cruel or not cruel? Should it be allowed or should it be banned? MPs have voted to allow ‘three-person babies’. Is this acceptable or not? Some people believe women have no place in leading the Church – there may now be a woman Bishop in the Anglican church but there’s not likely to be a Catholic one for some long time. Is this discriminatory or is it flying in the face of tradition?
These are legitimate questions and can’t easily be answered by telling schools to promote British Values. And it’s unclear how values can actually be taught. They are caught by osmosis, by example, not acquired by being told. Too often that comes down to, ‘Do as I say, and not as I do.’ Hypocrisy – another British ‘value’.
Knowledge about democracy can, of course, be promoted by learning about Magna Carta and De Montfort’s parliament. But children have to engage with the issues before democracy really seeps into the bone. We saw that in Scotland when young people argued passionately about independence during the Referendum debate.
Being told to uphold British Values by a Government that tells children they’re failures if they don’t get 5 ‘good’ GCSEs and which exaggerates the success of academies while sneering at ‘council-run schools’ is not the way forward.
* This definition was the one used in recent Department for Education guidance
on promoting British Values in schools. It was repeated in Ofsted’s report
about its consultation about changes to the inspection regime coming in force in September 2015. The report’s findings are summarised in the faq above: What are the changes to Ofsted inspections due to take place in September 2015?