The controversy over the Trojan Horse allegations of “extremism” at a number of Birmingham schools has provoked much discussion concerning the need to teach and assert British values to children. There has been a quick turnaround from the government, and a two-month consultation has now been launched on proposals to promote British values in schools.
The proposals come about as part of changes to the department of education’s Independent School Standards, expected to come into force in September 2014. One of the new standards being proposed requires owners of independent schools to:
Actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs; and encourage students to respect other people, with particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010.
The draft proposals also include new clauses that say schools must “encourage respect for other people, paying particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010” 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 England”.
On the surface the general guidance seems reasonable, but a closer analysis reveals it is slanted and directed toward Muslim schools. For example, the proposed new standards seek to enable the secretary of state for education to utilise the Equality Act 2010 to take action against schools that breach equality provisions in regards to gender, sexual orientation and lack of tolerance for other faiths in its teaching. The consultation document specifically refers to girls sitting at the back of the class as an example of poor practice – a clear indication that it is directing its attention to Muslim schools.
But the guidance is silent on measures to tackle institutional inequality in schools. It offers no guidance on recruitment of staff, or on monitoring and taking action on any performance disparities between groups of students such as between males and females, or Muslims and Christians. Nor does it offer guidance on any other forms of discrimination that break the Equality Act and hinders student development. Equality is outlined solely in terms of values.
Framed by white male politicians
The question here is whether an understanding of the ideas of Britishness as outlined in the proposed new independent school standards would really resolve issues of social inclusion and equality in schools and the wider society. I’d argue that the appeal to “British values” is a smokescreen that hides a multitude of issues concerning inequality and justice not dealt with by other British institutions.
Political philosophers such as Michael Sandel, John Rawls and others have long-debated what values and mechanisms are required for arriving at the common good when you have a diversity of competing interests operating in society. Martin Luther King Jnr and other theologians have spoken of the “beloved community” and explore the values, principles and ways of belonging that are required to create and sustain an ideal community. So it is legitimate to ask what type of communities we want to live in.
The problem with the current debate and the proposals emanating from them is the context in which “British values” are being framed. It is being done by powerful white male politicians who in talking about “values” in relation to British Muslim minority communities turn “British values” into a racial marker or label of racial differentiation.
The unspoken assumption here is that certain behaviours are labelled as Muslim and that these are not compatible with being British. Hence it is not your passport or the taxes that you pay, that determine whether you can participate in British public life. But now it’s your “values” that determine how British you are and the degree to which you can run and influence institutions in this country.
Institutions under the spotlight
Britain needs more than this. It needs a discussion on whether its institutions, from the NHS, to the police to schools, are genuine purveyors and defenders of equality and justice for all. Britain needs an honest and genuine reflection on whether its institutional and policy mechanisms are capable of delivering genuine justice and equality in a 21st century multicultural society. This society needs to incorporate Muslims rather than racialises them as an “other” to be dealt with differently.
A discussion about values needs to focus on all British institutions and the degree to which they genuinely reflect and represent the diversity of the country. Too many British institutions are woefully unrepresentative of the communities that they serve. And too many members of minority communities bear the scars of discrimination, poor service delivery and injustice that they have received from schools, hospitals, the police, the media and other so called venerable purveyors of “British values”.
Where is the public outcry over the lack of “British values” being put into practice on behalf of these citizens? Many black and minority ethnic citizens are still waiting for those proposals, rather than yet another piece of guidance that seeks to tell us how to be British, when much of the rest of Britain is failing to live up to its own values.