The recent announcement by the new secretary of state for education Nicky Morgan that toddlers must be taught British values is the latest in a chain of events precipitated by the Trojan Horse affair over extremism at some schools in Birmingham.
But awareness of equality and diversity issues has been central to early years education for years now. Many early years teachers already underpin their teaching with these values –values that will now be tagged as “officially British”. The big question is how Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, will interpret and police the way these values are taught to toddlers.
Following on from recent changes to the School Inspection Handbook – largely instigated following the Trojan Horse affair – the government has launched a consultation into changes to the school and early years finance regulations. Crucially, this proposes that funding be withdrawn from providers that do not “actively promote fundamental British values”.
Going over old ground?
But experts argue that the definition of these values – learning right from wrong, to take turns and sharing – are values that have been fundamental to early years provision for a considerable amount of time. This position was emphasised by Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance in a recent interview on the proposed changes.
This view is also supported by Sue Griffin, former national training manager for the National Childminding Association and author of Inclusion, Equality and Diversity in working with children. She told me, “Early years settings have a lot to teach the education sector and right wing politicians about addressing inclusion, equality and diversity, since practitioners with our youngest children have been exploring these issues for decades.”
She went on to emphasise the need for practitioners “to keep their nerve and carry on in the confidence that they are thinking seriously about practical ways of helping children to develop unprejudiced views and learn to respect and value one another, whatever their differences in ethnicity, culture, family background.”
What are British values?
There is little dispute around the actual values being advocated by government, but the insertion of the word British and its apparent annexation of these values is, for many, deeply disturbing.
The term British on its own is difficult to define. There is no single definition of what it means to be British as historian Paul Ward points out in his book on Britishness since 1870. He highlights the fact that Britishness is not innate, static or permanent and has been mediated by many identities, not least race, colour, gender and class.
If we can’t define British, then British values are even more nebulous to pin down as educationalist Gus John describes:
David Cameron and people like me see the world through different eyes. We see our combined history through different lenses and therefore I have a take on the legacy of Empire and what Britain should have been doing about these last 50 years that differs fundamentally from that of Mr Cameron and the roots of his ‘British values’.
It seems bewildering to some professionals in this area that the government should seek to make such a provocative statement about British values. Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years said that the existing early years curriculum “already requires nurseries and child-minders to develop key skills such as teaching children to take turns and challenge negative attitudes”.
She goes on to say that Ofsted already has the power to judge values under the Early Years Foundation Stage and can already, “tackle concerns by judging a setting as requiring improvement”. Bayram calls the innovation “a big reaction to an issue that may not even be there, and that could be tackled by the inspection framework that is already in place”.
Creating policy on this matter is one thing but it is quite another when it comes down to putting it into operation. Asking inspectors to define what a British value is and what is not will add a very tricky element to their training. This is already overloaded with the numerous requirements demanded of practising inspectors, not only in the act of inspection itself but equally in post-inspection reporting to the public. They will need to explain exactly how they came to their judgements on this issue.
The guidance contained in the School Inspection Handbook comes into force this September. It remains to be seen how Ofsted will deal with this latest turn in the complex business of regulating English education, and the early years sector will no doubt look on with interest.