Menu Close

Promoting ‘British values’ opens up a can of worms for teachers

A full English. Is that British? ilgiovaneWalter, CC BY-NC-ND

Following recent allegations of Muslim extremism in some Birmingham schools and Ofsted putting five of them in special measures, Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education announced that schools in Britain will be required to “actively promote British values”.

Gove’s announcement is not surprising. In 2012, his department revised qualifying Teachers Standards required newly qualified teachers [NQTs] not to undermine “fundamental British values” in their teaching and to show tolerance of other cultures and respect for the rights of others.

But what is meant by British values? In the teaching standards, the government defined British values as “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. This definition of British values coincides with findings by the former Commission for Racial Equality in 2005. But it is questionable whether democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs are actually unique to Britain.

Are British values shared?

How are British values constructed and can they be taught in schools? The previous Labour government in 2007 commissioned colleagues and I to conduct a study around these issues. In part, the research was concerned with understanding teacher conceptions of British values and contentions of shared British identities which could be explored in schools as part of the citizenship education curriculum.

As part of developing a wider understanding of teacher practice in relation to promoting shared British values through citizenship education, teachers and headteachers were asked about their understanding of shared British values. For the majority, the shared nature of British values was difficult to articulate. Many even had reservations about whether all Britons do in fact share the same values. This scepticism led one primary school head to state: “You start worrying me when you say shared”.

Expanding on his concern that British values are not shared by all members of society, a secondary headteacher of a London school argued that tolerance of and inclusion of different groups only had “real value” and meaning in London, which as a city is “very ethnically diverse”. He added that “the further you move away from London, the less those values have any impact on the way people interrelate” and integrate with each other.

This perception is supported by the 2011 UK census and Paul Thomas and Pete Sanderson at the University of Huddersfield. Their research into community cohesion in the north of England suggests that white young people were less likely than Asian young people to self ascribe themselves as British. Instead, they identified themselves as English.

Who measures who has them?

In promoting an understanding of shared British values, the citizenship curriculum in 2007 was widened to include “identity and diversity: living together in the UK”. Keith Ajegbo, Dina Kiwan and Seema Sharma emphasised in their diversity curriculum review of citizenship education that in order for young people to explore how they live together in the UK today and to debate the values they share with others, it is important they consider issues that have shaped the development of UK society.

However, the teachers we interviewed argued that there was a danger in trying to “over-analyse” or “discuss” British values and “Britishness”, especially if such analysis resulted in teachers trying to discover “how close they [pupils] are to that [British] value and how far away they are”. Therefore these teachers implied that honest debates about British values and whether they are shared or not were what was required in citizenship education.

Gove reacts to ‘Trojan Horse’ investigations in parliament on June 9. PA Wire/PA Wire

A real difficulty these teachers envisioned in teaching about shared British values was that cultural values when internalised are durable and become difficult to change. They were concerned that where pupils or teachers disagreed with the idea that British values are shared, such disagreements would “be used” by the government and school governing bodies to exert compliance. As one head teacher put it, this could be “as a stick to beat some groups of people over the head with”; and by “people” he meant both teachers and pupils.

Resistance to stoking division

In his book The Genesis of Values, Hans Joas makes clear that governments need to consider whether values are “consensually shared and internalised as value(s)” by everyone – including the majority population. He also contends that: “any attempt to make a certain value system obligatory would be more likely to provoke counter movements than achieve its goal without entering resistance”.

This view was shared by the teachers we interviewed. Several expressing resistance to educating about British values, particularly where they had concerns that minority ethnic cultural values were not being respected in the wider society or included within the umbrella of British values.

Such fears led one head teacher to openly state that she would “worry about how to teach it”. She was concerned that a focus in citizenship education teaching on shared British values would lead to minority ethnic cultures and values being “ignored or dismissed”. This is more likely to occur where teachers bring uninformed views about particular ethnic groups to the classroom. Such views could be regarded as racist and demonstrating a lack of understanding and tolerance of minority ethnic groups.

Work ahead for teachers

Before the government requires schools to promote British values, it is incumbent on teachers to have an understanding of Britain as a multi-ethnic population with diverse cultural values. It’s also important that these understandings are sensitively explored so as to illustrate the ways in which minority ethnic groups also fit within notions of “Britishness”.

As one PSHE cordinator told us in our research, very often schools “get NQTs who haven’t really got very much idea at all” about Britain’s ethnic diversity. With the lack of focus on issues to do with ethnicity, culture and religious beliefs in the new Teachers’ Standards, newly qualified teachers are less likely to be well informed about Britain’s diverse population.

All teachers will need opportunities through continuing professional development (CPD) to recognise that British identities are multiple, fluid and will continue to change. Individuals move between identities in different contexts and times, and this may affect their perceptions of Britishness and shared British values. Teachers will also need to reflect on and challenge the stereotyped views about different ethnic groups they and students might hold, and the labels that might apply to them. This matters as much to white British groups as it does to minority ethnic communities.

Teacher CPD is salient as, without an agreement as to what “Britishness” and “British values” are, teachers’ efforts not to undermine British values might actually serve to accentuate “differences” and create racial tensions. As one pupil put it to us, even if everyone is “the same on the outside” it does not mean they feel “the same on the inside”.

And finally, teachers will need to recognise and appreciate how perceptions of “race” and notions of “belonging” are constructed. And in turn how these concepts along with racism, structure some pupils’ understanding of “Britishness”, notions of “otherness” and experience of intolerance.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 150,400 academics and researchers from 4,447 institutions.

Register now