We have no written constitution so we don’t have a set of explicit values or core beliefs ingrained in our culture or national DNA.
The concept of ‘British values’ is therefore elusive because there is no baseline understanding of what it is to be a ‘British citizen’ and many blur British values with Britishness.
Ask most people in the street what they are and you’d be sure to get responses ranging from “Err” and “Hmm”, “Do we have any?” and “Haven’t a clue!” mixed with confusing British symbols and stereotypes such as “fish ‘n’ chips”, “the BBC” and “The Queen, God bless her soul”.
The Government emphasises that schools are required to ensure that key ‘British values’ are taught in all UK schools.
It set out its definition of British values in the 2011 Prevent Strategy.
The five fundamental British values are:
- The rule of law
- Individual liberty
- Mutual respect
- Tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs
Many schools will have a British Values Statement or similar, declaring their commitment to serving their community.
Schools are required to provide for the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of their pupils. As part of this requirement, they are expected to actively promote fundamental British values and most have said that promoting them has merely reinforced, not changed, their ethos.
Schools recognise the multi-cultural, multi faith and ever-changing nature of the United Kingdom and the vital role they play in ensuring that groups or individuals within the school are not subjected to intimidation or radicalisation by those wishing to unduly, or illegally, influence them.
It all sounds straight-forward enough and although the Government seems pretty clear what British Values are and schools have written them up in their policies and statements, the vast majority of us still aren’t sure because they are open to interpretation, a work in progress and subject to change.
I’m hard-pressed to meet any teacher that confidently understands what British values are supposed to be or how to teach them because they are broad, vague and rootless.
This means that teachers have translated them with a lot of freedom to fit their own settings and so their interpretation and promotion is wider than the Capertee Valley in Australia. No one said that political literacy and citizenship was going to be easy.
Training, advice and specialist resources are ‘out there’ but providers put their own spin on what British values are and how they should be taught which makes things very messy, confusing and disjointed.
Scrap ‘British values’
Sometimes things slip under the radar and news can get buried but are we about to see British values ditched?
A recent citizenship report that didn’t really hit the headlines was ‘The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century’, from The House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement. This is well-worth a read.
A major criticism of ‘British values’ is that they aren’t exclusively British but can be equally applied to other countries, cultures and religions.
The word ‘fundamental’ also comes into question as this has “troubling connotations”.
The report recommends that,
“The Government should stop using the term Fundamental British Values and instead use the term Shared Values of British Citizenship. It should recognise that the values are both shared with people from other countries and are essentially British.” (Paragraph 46)
Citizenship education is the first opportunity for imparting and developing British values and it has a crucial role to play in helping to build active citizens but in order to support positive citizenship, we desperately need to come to an understanding what values we are supposed to be sharing.
The report therefore recommends that the existing values should be changed to include “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and respect for the inherent worth and autonomy of every person” and that these values “should be central to government policy and each department must make it clear how it relates to them.”
The report also argues that efforts to promote ‘Fundamental British Values’ has been associated too much with the Prevent strategy which has blunted their impact.
Rather than solely aiming to counter extremism, ‘Shared Values of British Citizenship’ must be to encourage positive citizenship.
‘The Ties That Bind’ pulls no punches and is scathing of the state of citizenship education in England saying that the Government has allowed it to “degrade to a parlous state” and its decline must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Trained citizenship teachers and first-rate CPD are an urgent priority as this will stop the ‘off the shelf’ citizenship teaching we see currently where teachers plug themselves into ready-made toolkit resources that vary in quality, effectiveness and impact.
So, until we get the guidance we need, we must keep our upper lip stiff, soldier on and keep calm – aren’t those the values we hold dear? If that’s too nationalistic then let’s all just be decent human beings, look after each other and value life – fundamentally we are all connected.