The thorny problem of British Values

Janet Downs's picture
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?
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


David Barry's picture
Wed, 04/02/2015 - 17:54

Actually I would have said that a hall mark of "British Values" is a society in which there is not a general agreement about what these are! And a willingness to tolerate this.

Also not worrying too much about a bit of inconsistency if the thing seems to work.

So, in England we have an Established Church, the Church of England. Which is protestant, reformed, has Bishops and the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

In Scotland we have an Established Church, the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian and MUCH more protestant. (No Bishops, certainly no shrines)

In Wales no established Church. In N. Ireland no established Church.

And all in the same, United Kingdom.....

Guest's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 14:13

"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." This statement explicitly implies that Ofsted has choice as to whether it takes the DFE (Government) lead on British Values (e.g. that it could promote a different Ofsted sanctioned definition). But clearly this is not the case and as such framing of the headline piece regarding Ofsted is unfounded and could be perceived as an unwarranted attack on the basis a personal dislike for the organisation.

Whether on agrees or disagrees with the prevailing and statutory definition from the government through DFE and whether one agrees or disagrees with the modus operandi of Ofsted, it is necessary to maintain a balanced approach. That is to say, recognise and acknowledge that in matter under discussion here Ofsted has no alternative but to use the statutory definition.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 14:23

Guest, while I agree the gist and thrust of your position I must point up that the DFE guidance is non-statutory:

"This is non-statutory advice from the Department for Education. Maintained schools have obligations under section 78 of the Education Act (2002) which requires schools, as part of a broad and balanced curriculum, to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society. This guidance relates specifically to the requirements to actively promote fundamental British values in schools and explains how this can be met through the general requirement in the 2002 Act."

SMSC Guidance for maintained schools issued Nov 14.

I would suggest therefore that it is clarification of the requirements of section 78 of the Education Act 2002.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 14:44

Guest - I'm unsure how a statement can be explicitly implyied. Either the meaning is explicit (obvious) or it's implied (suggested). That said, the relevant part from the Ofsted report linked in the article says:

"We note the questions we have received about the definition of ‘fundamental British values’. This is defined by the government’s Prevent Strategy as ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs’.The same definition is used in guidance recently published by the Department for Education on promoting fundamental British values as part of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development in schools." (Page 14)

I was paraphrasing not making an 'unwarranted attack'. And the statement implies that Ofsted accept this definition.

Guest's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 14:54

I'm not going to bandy words or play semantics. The simply fact is that, and as you amply reinforce by citing Prevent, Ofsted has no choice but to follow the guidance from government sources (i.e. Prevent and/or DFE).

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 15:05

Guest - the quote about Prevent was from Ofsted not me. I am merely passing on what Ofsted said. I placed the quotation in speech marks to make it absolutely clear I was quoting someone else.

You are possibly right Ofsted had no choice despite being independent. I've expressed concern in the past about asking inspectors to inspect how far schools engage with Prevent. This appears to be an example of mission creep where the inspection of education in schools widens to become surveillance. Prevent is controversial - not all local authorities are enthusiastic. And as we saw in Birmingham, some schools where safeguarding met requirements were still criticised for not engaging with Prevent and their leadership/management was downgraded.

mistemina's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 10:40

Christian society in the UK has, by and large, reached an understanding, a peaceable accommodation. May I please extend the discussion beyond the Christian 'world'.

We need to find this understanding and accommodation with other committees that practice other religions. The easy answer is to say, Come and let us talk peaceably through the differences, with your other beliefs.
The problem lies in the fact that some non-Christian communities are and have been allowed to remain isolated, to do their own thing. A willful minority have exploited this isolation, and may be are corrupting not only some young men, but setting parts of this communities on a negative mind set.
How are we to reach into these communities to overcome this problem?

Andy V's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 14:39

In relation to the DFE guidance it is useful to review the most up to date sources and in this case it can be found at:

"Fundamental British values

Schools should 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. This can help schools to demonstrate how they are meeting the requirements of section 78 of the Education Act 2002, in their provision of SMSC.
Actively promoting the values means challenging opinions or behaviours in school that are contrary to fundamental British values. Attempts to promote systems that undermine fundamental British values would be completely at odds with schools’ duty to provide SMSC. The Teachers’ Standards expect teachers to uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour, within and outside school. This includes not undermining fundamental British values.

Through their provision of SMSC, schools should:
• enable students to develop their self-knowledge, self-esteem and self-confidence;
• enable students to distinguish right from wrong and to respect the civil and
criminal law of England;
• encourage students to accept responsibility for their behaviour, show initiative, and
to understand how they can contribute positively to the lives of those living and
working in the locality of the school and to society more widely;
• enable students to acquire a broad general knowledge of and respect for public
institutions and services in England;
• further tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions by enabling
students to acquire an appreciation of and respect for their own and other cultures;
• encourage respect for other people; and
• encourage respect for democracy and support for participation in the democratic
processes, including respect for the basis on which the law is made and applied in

The list below describes the understanding and knowledge expected of pupils as a result of schools promoting fundamental British values.

• an understanding of how citizens can influence decision-making through the
democratic process;
• an appreciation that living under the rule of law protects individual citizens and is
essential for their wellbeing and safety;

• an understanding that there is a separation of power between the executive and
the judiciary, and that while some public bodies such as the police and the army
can be held to account through Parliament, others such as the courts maintain
• an understanding that the freedom to choose and hold other faiths and beliefs is
protected in law;
• an acceptance that other people having different faiths or beliefs to oneself (or
having none) should be accepted and tolerated, and should not be the cause of
prejudicial or discriminatory behaviour; and
• an understanding of the importance of identifying and combatting discrimination.

It is not necessary for schools or individuals to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions
that conflict with their own, but nor is it acceptable for schools to promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background."

Lengthy copy and paste I know but it appears to address the issues raised by Janet and John. It seems clear from the above that through the action of democracy, debate, the legal processes (i.e. law making by the executive) that it is possible for all sections within the national community to have their say and influence change. What it does not appear to be saying or suggesting is that one sub set of the national community has superiority or primacy over another.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 14:56

Thanks, Andy. It's a pity a shortened version of this wasn't widely published when the Gov't said schools should promote 'British Values'. These, as I said above, mean different things to different people. In particular, the part which says children should acquire (among other things):

'an understanding that the freedom to choose and hold other faiths and beliefs is protected in law'.

Yet we have nationwide hysteria at the moment about alleged witch hunts against Christian schools. I wouldn't be surprised if any faith school found Inadequate in the future will allege inappropriate questioning by inspectors and make sure the DT and Mail get to know.

But if there were a nationwide plot to undermine Christian schools then it should be expected that all Christian schools inspected recently would make the same complaint. But they don't appear to.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 15:13

To add to the confusion about 'British Values', these have become tangled up with rooting out extremism and radicalisation. But the quote Andy provided doesn't mention it. However, Ofsted guidance re safeguarding published today says Ofsted’s responsibilities
include raising 'specific safeguarding concerns' with senior managers of the institution being inspected. This would be the head teacher in a school. These concerns 'could include...concern about the presence of radicalisation and/or extremism within any setting or the failure to address such issues appropriately.'

This explicitly says that if inspectors identify concerns about 'radicalisation and/or extremism' they should raise it with the head (and not, presumably, write a comment in the draft report without discussing it with the head first).

Andy V's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 15:28

I suspect that any such concerns are likely to arise from parental and/or staff engagement with Ofsted and/or meeting with pupils as part of the inspection process and/or lesson observations.

With regard to the reporting process, it is my understanding that the LI has regular contact with the HT during the inspection and the latter is invited to join the inspection team for their day 1 and day 2 meetings. It seems to me then that any concern arising will very much be discussed with the HT and that only if the concern is not fully resolved will it make it into the draft let alone final report. Furthermore, HTs get to undertake a factual check of the draft before it goes for final QA and ultimately publication.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 16:04

Andy - that's also my understanding. Discussions take place and draft reports checked before final publications. But it appears there is some leaking of draft reports which find their way to national papers. I'm suspicious this is sometimes done to diffuse a negative report (but I've no evidence) and get opinion on the school's side before a final report is published which might show a catalogue of failings.

But by that time, the pre-publicity has done its work and the school is bombarded with support against evil inspectors.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 17:15

I am not sure I like the idea of any values imposed by the state through the school system. Adults should be able to think and act as they please within the laws enacted by a democratically elected parliament and the Common Law. Does Jon Snow on Channel 4 News fail to abide by British Values by refusing to wear a poppy in the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday?

Children should have the right to equal access to a broad and balanced education within a system that promotes personal development. They should be taught that they share a duty of care and respect for each other.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 05/02/2015 - 17:35

Roger - that's one of the things that makes me uneasy about a focus on 'British Values'. They can be hi-jacked and veer into nationalism. Wearing a poppy, for example, should be voluntary but now all the BBC presenters were wearing poppies even on Strictly and Countryfile while slurping about in mud. Got to keep the poppy fascists from carping.

But wars were fought so we didn't have to wear symbols.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.