The head of England’s schools inspectorate believes that British values, including tolerance, openness to new ideas and mutual respect, should form a central part of school education.
Amanda Spielman, the new Ofsted chief, said the education system has a “vital role in inculcating and upholding” these values. She went on to praise one school which promotes inclusiveness, and another where a “values-focused” thought each day informs teaching.
But the very subject of teaching values in school can be problematic. Whose values are really being taught? How will a school’s performance of this duty be measured? Others think we should step back from the question of “British” values and focus on helping children develop a “virtuous” character.
But what happens when an entire school culture is seen by its students as promoting equality, mutual respect and inclusiveness?
New research reveals a significant relationship between Quaker school values and their students’ engagement with learning opportunities. Quaker schools are not common (there are ten in the UK and Ireland, 100 in the US), but they exist in 15 countries around the world. Some are very well established and highly thought of – both the Clintons and the Obamas sent their children to a Quaker establishment, Sidwell Friends School, from the White House.
There are several things which make the English Quaker schools involved in the research distinctive. First, they all hold a “Meeting for Worship” which looks similar to a traditional school assembly in which the whole school gathers. Everyone sits in silence and all have the opportunity to address the room. This practice underscores another distinctive feature, which is that Quaker schools assert that everyone is equal. Schools try to reflect this in the way they listen to students and encourage positive relationships between year groups and between students and staff.
Although independent, Quaker schools rarely admit students based on academic selection. Quakers believe there is “something of God in everyone”. They actively encourage inclusiveness and stress that each student will grow and develop in their own way.
Yet counter-intuitively, students often perform very well in exams and the schools punch above their weight in academic results. So do aspects of the Quaker school culture contribute to students’ successful learning?
We found that students who were more likely to study without being told to and who enjoyed and took more interest in their subjects were the ones who also saw their schools as places characterised by friendliness, an equalitarian ethos and somewhere they rarely felt pressured. These students also tended to value the Quaker practice of silence and the weekly all-school Meeting for Worship, in which anyone can share a thought or express an opinion.
Interviews with students revealed how friendly relationships create strong bonds of trust, grounded in mutual respect and the Quaker belief in equality (perhaps surprising given that only 3% of students and 8% of teachers at the schools come from a Quaker background). Students recognise teachers as supportive and “on their side”, which leads to honest conversations about their studies and feeling of increased responsibility for their own learning.
One Year 10 boy said:
If you have a good relationship with the teacher or you are more friendly, then it is easier for you to get into the subject and learn more.
A girl from Year 9 told us:
I think the Quakerism influences us a lot. I think that’s what gives a lot of the friendly environment because you know that you’re equal whoever you are.
The Meeting for Worship was seen as providing an opportunity to reflect, contributing to the relaxed atmosphere of school. But it also confirmed the place of students’ voices and the importance of community. This helped students feel they can be themselves, and supported to do the best they can – although this “best” was not confined to examination performance.
A working relationship
According to one female student, the friendly atmosphere “helps you learn more, because you feel under less pressure to understand [the subject] straight away”.
Interviews with teachers confirmed the perspectives of students. They felt there was a focus on providing a wide and varied education, which was not defined principally in terms of exam grades. Many teachers referred to their sense of freedom to teach students as individuals, without feeling pressured by evaluations.
“The children are allowed to be themselves, but we are as well,” said one. “Everyone is welcomed and tolerated so it is a very accepting environment, and that makes for a very pleasant environment to teach in.”
Several factors linking back to the Quaker belief in equality and their practice of open worship, appear to help explain the relationship between students’ willingness to engage with learning and their lack of anxiety in relation to study, as well as their ability to make the most of the support offered by teachers. In particular, there seems to be a relationship between the inclusive ethos of the schools and an orientation towards educational engagement in students.
In seeking to explain these relationships, we’ve come to see that inclusiveness may be important to education because learning is really about being open to receive “the other”. Curriculum content is one of these “others”. Students who have been encouraged to practice inclusiveness towards fellow students – and have seen this role modelled in their teachers – become more disposed to receive the “otherness” of new learning opportunities.
Spielman may be on to something in her desire to see values play an important role in school education. But the challenge will be to help schools adopt cultures where those values are authentically – and visibly – practised.