The Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools last year has left an indelible mark on the education system and the ensuing debate on the need for schools to uphold “British values” has infused parties’ proposals for education. This is despite a final report into the affair by the House of Commons education committee which concluded that apart from one incident, no evidence of extremism or radicalisation was found in any of the schools involved and there was “no evidence of a sustained plot”.
Guidelines for schools on embedding British values were introduced in November 2014 and were designed to:
Tighten up the standards on pupil welfare to improve safeguarding and on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils to strengthen the barriers to extremism.
These guidelines were also an attempt to shore up a national identity at a time of increasing threats from fundamentalism. But the move has caused anger in religious schools such as St Benedict’s Catholic Secondary School in Bury St Edmunds, which was downgraded by the schools’ inspectorate Ofsted last year for failing to prepare students for life in modern Britain.
The whole idea of British values may have been conceived by the former Conservative secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, but feelings in his party on the issue are running high. Edward Leigh, Conservative MP for Gainsborough, recently argued in the House of Commons that Ofsted was waging a war against faith schools with the policy, citing the recent announcement to close the Christian-ethos Durham Free School.
This tension between nationalism and faith places the Conservatives in an uncomfortable position. Although the party has declared its intention to forge ahead with the expansion of its academy and free schools programmes (many of which will presumably be faith-based), it has vacillated in its support of Ofsted in a number of areas, including the policing of British values.
The Conservatives have been seemingly content to use the inspection system to drive their academy and free school programme, by enjoining schools judged to be weak to become academies, yet also reluctant to allow it to perform thorough inspections of academy chains. Recent developments have moved the inspectorate a little closer to doing this, but Ofsted still has to stop short of offering an actual judgement on the overall performance of multi-academy trusts.
Meanwhile, UKIP has specifically mentioned British values in its proposals for education, stating: “UKIP supports the principle of free schools that are open to the whole community and uphold British values.” This infers that those schools found to be lacking in this area would not be supported. UKIP also states that parents and governors would have the power to trigger snap inspections, potentially exacerbating Ofsted’s already contentious role in this issue.
In contrast, Labour’s Tristram Hunt, writing in The Observer, described British values as a ministerial fad and announced Labour’s intention to reform and de-politicise Ofsted.
The Liberal Democrats have spoken out on a number of occasions about their concern in labelling values as specifically British. In an interview last June with The Independent, its leader Nick Clegg expressed concern that imposing British values in schools could alienate moderate Muslims. But since then the whole issue surrounding British values has not been confined to those holding Muslim beliefs but has been the subject of heated discussion within a number of other faith groups too.
The Green Party talks in terms of human values rather than British ones but firmly declares that, “no publicly funded schools shall be run by a religious organisation” and that “privately run schools run by religious organisations must reflect the inclusive nature of British society.” It also states that faith schools will not be allowed to opt out of equality and diversity legislation, nor will they be allowed to promote homophobia or transphobia on the grounds of religion.
The Greens are also proposing that Ofsted be dismantled and replaced by a local system of accountability shared between each local authority and a new National Council of Educational Excellence. Speaking to the TES in February, Green leader Natalie Bennett argued that Ofsted has become very damaging and that parachuting inspectors in every few years was not an appropriate form of accountability.
It is somewhat ironic that the incident that initiated the whole issue around British values and their promotion in education is not only widely viewed as a hoax, but also rooted not in extremism but in inadequate governance and oversight.
Debates around incorporation of the policing of British values into the inspection schedule, Ofsted’s heavy-handed approach in policing them and the conflation of the whole idea of British values with the fight against extremism, are not going to disappear overnight. Nor are the accusations that what began as a failure of governance in 21 Birmingham schools has since been used to downgrade and close many others.
In considering any future policies on accountability and oversight, the next government will have to think very carefully about what is to be done with the spectre of British values or wake up with a severe post-election hangover from the last administration’s policies.