The promotion of British values in schools is a rather contentious issue, not least because teachers are legally obligated to promote and protect ‘fundamental British values’ (FBVs) (DfE,2014,p.5). I witnessed this in practice, whilst working as a Learning Support Assistant, where a Year 7 English class was explicitly taught about Britishness as an independent scheme of work (SOW). Deeply traditional British imagery was ubiquitously employed throughout these lessons (such as the Union Jack, Big Ben and Churchill) and students were directed to reflect upon and discuss the meaning of Britishness – which ultimately led to stereotypical conversations about the importance of tea, football, the monarchy and empire. This narrow conception of Britishness was unchallenged by the teacher which greatly disconcerted me.
As an indigenous British national,
I saw this as an unbalanced conception of Britishness since the SOW failed to
highlight values representative of my own views on Britishness (including
multiculturalism, tolerance, freedom of speech and democracy). If the objective
of the SOW was to enable people to better understand what Britishness means or
to help them identify with the British community, then for me it had failed. What
concerned me more was that over a quarter of the class were not of British
heritage. I wondered: if I had found it difficult to relate to the narrow
conception of Britishness prevalent in those lessons, some students had probably
found it difficult too. Surely, I thought, teachers should attempt to challenge
narrow conceptions of Britishness in order to make such lessons relatable and
accessible to all students.
This is what sparked my interest in
FBVs. I began asking myself questions, such as:
What truly is ‘Britishness’?
What are British values?
Do the British people share a homogenous set of values?
Are British values not just universal values?
Why and how was this legal obligation to promote and protect FBVs introduced?
Is the project to promote and protect FBVs self-defeating?
This essay is concerned with these
final two questions. Specifically, by understanding the pretext for the
introduction of FBVs and teachers’ legal obligation to promote and protect them,
I aim to understand in what ways the policy surrounding FBVs might be – or at
least appear to be – self-defeating. Furthermore, if they are self-defeating, I
wish to examine whether teachers are necessarily hindered in their practices as
There is a plethora of ways to
explore the question of whether the project of FBVs is self-defeating. Nevertheless,
here we will address just two. The first concerns whether FBVs are intended to
be inclusive. As will be revealed, there are strong reasons to believe that
they are. Yet, I will argue that there is a risk that FBVs can appear to merely
feign rather than embody inclusion. Secondly, I wish to highlight how the broad advice
on how to promote and protect FBVs may conflict with the specific duty to
promote and protect democracy – for, democracy is one of the FBVs
(Ofsted,2018,pp.42). We begin, however, by looking at why and how FBVs and
teachers’ legal obligation to promote and protect them were introduced.
The Pretext for the Introduction
It appears that a change in the British political landscape was
instrumental to the introduction of FBVs. Britain’s involvement in the USA’s ‘War
on Terror’ in the early 2000s arguably helped to institutionalise a politics of
anti-terrorism and securitisation (Kapoor,2013,p.1029) which can be seen to
have catalysed a notable shift in UK public policy concerns away from what was
called ‘state multiculturalism’
(Holmwood & O’Toole,2018,pp.6-7). Later, in 2011, the Prime Minister, David
claimed that “state multiculturalism […]
encouraged different cultures to live separate lives […] apart from the
mainstream” and in order to “belong” in Britain one must believe in “certain
values”, values which Cameron believed were not shared by some ethnic minority
groups (Cameron,2011). These values
were subsequently defined in Britain’s anti-extremism Prevent Strategy as “fundamental
British values” (FBVs) within its definition of ‘extremism’, which itself was defined
as “vocal or active opposition” to FBVs (Crown,2011,p.107).
British Values (FBVs):
- The rule of law;
- Individual liberty; and
- Mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and
beliefs and for those without faith.
Shortly after, from September of 2012 the new
Teachers Standards required teachers to protect
Subsequently, the politics of anti-terrorism and securitisation was further proliferated
by national and international incidents of terrorism, the growth of notorious
terrorist organisations and the so-called Trojan Horse Affair in 2014
(Lander,2016,p.275). Consequently, the DfE published non-statutory advice
relating to the promotion of FBVs as
a part of social, moral, spiritual and cultural (SMSC) development in schools
multicultural state or society, or a state that advocates being multicultural.
 Here is an excerpt which shows this: “What I am about to say is drawn from the British experience, but I believe there are general lessons for us all. In the UK, some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practised at home by their parents, whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries. But these young men also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.” (Cameron,2011).
“Teachers uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of
ethics and behaviour, within and outside school, by: … not undermining
fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual
liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and
As we shall see, there are elements of the pretext of FBVs which could cause us
to believe that they might be self-defeating. By drawing upon some of those
elements my central claim within this section is that if FBVs are
intended to be inclusive, then they risk appearing to feign inclusion rather
than embodying it. This is because some of the history surrounding education
policies concerning Britain’s minority groups, as well as some aspects of the
pretext for the introduction of teachers’ obligation to promote and protect FBVs,
can appear to be racist. I will focus on the government’s treatment of the Swan
Report of 1985 and then on the Trojan Horse Affair of 2014 as two illustrative
According to Robin Richardson, in
the late-1980s central government sought to “de-emphasize and marginalize the
conclusions and recommendations of the Swann Report” (Richardson,2015,p.38) which
identified a distinct need in schools for “change where attitudes to the ethnic
minorities are concerned” and that a “[m]ulticultural understanding… [ought] to
permeate all aspects of a school’s work” (Swann,1985,pp.767-769). In support of
its marginalisation, Beverley Shaw argued that an education founded on “universal
tolerance and understanding” would fail to respect its students’ social, ethnic
or religious identities “for such an education cannot of its nature reinforce
home and family values” without creating the social divisions it is intended to
repair (Shaw,1988,p.258). However, one might contend that Shaw’s reasoning is flawed
because (A) it is mistaken about the role that schools have with respect to
reinforcing home and family values (or, as I will term them, ‘cultural values’);
and, more importantly, (B) the rationale by which that mistaken role is assumed
can appear to be (and may even be) racist.
With respect to (A), Shaw’s argument
could be invalidated if one believed that schools have no role in necessarily reinforcing (viz. instructing on) cultural
values but rather have a role in educating
on (viz. informing on, revealing, or modelling) them. The process of reinforcing certain cultural values may,
indeed, involve excluding other cultural values since it would necessitate
being selective when deciding which to reinforce.
Hence, as Shaw remarks, in a culturally plural school setting, reinforcing cultural values might almost
necessarily fail to respect some students’ identities. Conversely, the process
of educating on cultural values has
the potential to succeed in respecting all students’ identities because it is
not as restricted by ideas concerning prescriptivity.
Accordingly, Shaw is mistaken in repudiating the Swann Report on the belief
that the kind of education it recommended fails to respect its students’
identities, for that need not be the case if one believes schools have a role
in educating on cultural values
rather than reinforcing them.
For reinforcing all of the world’s cultural values would be impossible.
say ‘potential’ because, despite it being logically possible that all cultural
values are respected, some cultural values may still be perceived as unworthy
Importantly, concerning (B), some
people might view the kind of rationale employed by Shaw as racist. The assumption
that education ought to reinforce certain cultural values arguably entails the implicit
premise that there exists a specific set of cultural values – rather than
‘universal’ values – which is inherently superior to others, including those of
resident ethnic minorities, and is thus more deserving of being reinforced. It
is these kinds of attitudes and “inherited myths” with which the Swann Report
was concerned (Swann,1985,p.769) – attitudes purporting that ethnic minority
cultures and their respective values are inherently inferior to those of the
mainstream culture. Furthermore, it is beyond mere speculation to suggest that
many people would qualify such attitudes as racist. Hence, if the central
government’s move in the late-1980s to de-emphasise and marginalise the
recommendations of the Swann Report was seen to be decided upon reasoning
equivalent or similar to that of Shaw’s, it could quite conceivably be
considered by some as a racist move.
The government’s marginalisation of
the Swann Report is just one example of how racism might be seen to be present
in the history surrounding education policies. For those concerned with the possibility
that its marginalisation was racist, the question for today is: is it possible that FBVs were conceived on
the back of similar attitudes to those which ostensibly denounced the Swann
At first glance, the answer is potentially
yes. For, FBVs are identified by
their title as being distinctly ‘British’ values, suggesting that they are
cultural values unique to Britain. Thus, it could be claimed that FBVs are
racist, in a way similar to the allegation made against Shaw in (B), by “implying
that Britain is somehow better and more civilised than other countries”
(NASUWT,2016,p.6). This would explain why teachers are duty-bound to promote
and protect FBVs and why the government defined ‘extremism’ as “vocal
or active opposition” to FBVs (Crown,2011,p.107).
However, it would be unfair to cry
‘racism!’ too quickly. For, upon looking at the individual values
which constitute FBVs it becomes clear that they are “certainly not unique to
Britain” (NASUWT,2016,p.6). For, democracy (FBV1); the rule
of law (FBV2); individual liberty (FBV3); and mutual respect for and tolerance
of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith (FBV4)
are all values held in multiple countries and cultures worldwide. Therefore, to
prevent people from mistaking FBVs as uniquely British values, moreover to
prevent “alienation and division”, it would be prudent to understand FBVs as ‘Universal
Values’ (NASUWT,2016,p.6). So, perhaps despite their name, FBVs were not
devised from racist attitudes since they appear to embody Universal Values –
values which are not exclusive to Britain.
Further evidencing that FBVs were
not devised from racist attitudes, in the Department for Education’s advice for
promoting FBVs in practice they state, “[i]t is not necessary for schools or
individuals to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with
their own, but nor is it acceptable for schools to promote discrimination
against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background”
(DfE,2014,p.6). This embodies FBV4 and it is an example of how the promotion of
FBVs is intended to be inclusive, qua
respectful for and tolerant of those with different faiths and beliefs, in
The problem with this is that there is a risk that
those who might view the kind of rationale employed by Shaw as racist may thus
see FBV4 as an ad-hoc attempt at
making FBVs seem more inclusive when in reality they are not. This contention could
be inspired or compounded by the pretext for the introduction of FBVs
and teachers’ obligation to promote and protect them, since it appears to encourage
differential treatment of minority groups (Strathers,2017,p.100), contradicting
FBV4. This, according to Richardson, is because “the discourse of politicians
[…] implies that a central purpose of teaching British values is to control and
regulate young Muslims” (Richardson,2015,p.45). The Trojan Horse Affair
exemplifies this allegation: In March 2014 the Sunday Times reported on a Muslim plot to take over the governing
bodies of a collection of Birmingham schools (Richardson,2015,p.39). Soon
after, the national press was fuelled by headlines warning of Islamic
extremists, fundamentalism and a “Jihadist plot to take over schools”
(Richardson,2015,p.40; quoting the Birmingham
Mail on 7th March 2014), now referred to as the Birmingham
Trojan Horse Affair. The document alleged as proof of this plot was a forgery
(Richardson,2015,p.40). Yet, well before any state-led investigations were able
to make this official conclusion – moreover, before hearings from teachers of
the implicated schools were conducted – the government cited the Trojan Horse
Affair as justification for its new plans to counter extremism (Holmwood &
O’Toole,2018,p.16). The introduction of the aforementioned obligation conferred
upon teachers to promote FBVs as a part of SMSC development in schools
constituted an element of these plans. Hence, the treatment of Muslims in this
case (and the potential perception that they were scapegoated for political
ends) could be considered by some as amounting to “a betrayal of the very
values that the teachers in the Birmingham [Trojan Horse Affair] case are held
to have disavowed” (Holmewood & O’Toole,2018,p.20), those being the
fundamental British values – especially FBV4.
So, it is possible that FBVs were
conceived on the back of similar attitudes to those which possibly inspired the
marginalisation of the Swann Report. It is because of this that FBVs risk
appearing to feign inclusion rather than embodying it. Teachers are encouraged
to be inclusive in their practice, to embody and model FBV4 (DfE,2014,p.6), yet
at times, both in the past and with respect to pertinent recent events, the
central British government appear to have actively contradicted FBV4.
Be that as it may, I would argue
that the practice of promoting and protecting FBV4 is not necessarily
undermined by these events. For, even if FBVs were devised with racist intent,
this need not have any impact upon the practices of a teacher when promoting
and protecting them. The teacher can, regardless of recent history, protect and
respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for
those without faith”, by educating on FBVs. Furthermore, rethinking
FBVs as Universal Values could help to prevent any conflation between narrow
stereotypical conceptions of Britishness with values education and help
teachers consider their obligation to promote and protect FBVs in a more
inclusive fashion (NASUWT,2016,p.6), in line with FBV4.
However, an element of teaching practices relating to the promotion and
protection of democracy (FBV1) which could be seen as self-defeating concerns
the non-statutory advice relating to the promotion of FBVs as a part of SMSC. This
advice instructs teachers to “enable students” to “respect the civil and criminal law of England”,
“to acquire a […] respect for public institutions and services in England” and
to “encourage respect for the basis on which the law is made and applied in
England” (DfE,2014,p.5). However, practitioners may have reservations “concerning
the appropriateness of teaching students to respect public institutions and the
Laws of […] England when a key element of critical and empowering education
should arguably be that they are equipped with the capacities to challenge the state and its actions”
(Struthers,2016,pp.98-99; referencing Goodwin,2014). This could be argued on
the basis that a state’s citizens must have the capacity to take properly
informed democratic action to safeguard themselves against the state and other powerful
entities, such as when those entities threaten Human Rights or contradict FBVs,
which requires that its citizens hold a degree of scepticism with respect to
the state. In short, democracy necessitates having a degree of freedom not to
respect the state. Arguably, therefore, by instructing teachers to encourage
students to respect the state, the DfE’s guidance regarding the promotion and
protection of democracy (FBV1) is potentially self-defeating.
That being said, teachers could reinterpret
the DfE’s advice to avoid this. Teachers may, for instance, reinterpret ‘enabling
students to respect’ the civil and criminal law of England as meaning that they
ought to enable and encourage their
students to abide by the civil
and criminal law of England. For, abiding by laws need not necessitate
respecting them. Hence, through reinterpreting the DfE’s instructions, it is
possible that democracy can be promoted and protected by teachers in practice
in a way that is not self-defeating.
Yet, another way in which the practice
of promoting FBVs could be seen to contradict democracy relates to how FBVs are promoted. If promoting FBVs
equates to reinforcing them, just as
Shaw assumed teachers should do, then there is a danger that an allegation
could be made stating that the promotion of FBVs is merely a political tool to
nationalistically indoctrinate students. Having said that, if it is believed
that the process by which FBVs are promoted equates to educating on them, then this allegation might be quashed. Fortunately,
it is possible to infer from the DfE’s advice that the latter method is
preferred. This is because the language within their description of “the
understanding and knowledge expected of pupils as a result of schools promoting
fundamental British values” appears to connote an educating on approach when it states that students should have “an
understanding” of democracy or “an appreciation” for the rule of law and other
such things which characterise FBVs (DfE,2014,pp.5-6). Conversely, if it had stated rather more
obstinately that students “must believe” in democracy and the rule of law, then
we could potentially infer that it connotes a reinforcing approach to promoting FBVs.
So, whilst the guidance on how to promote FBVs could be seen to be
self-defeating by potentially (perhaps unwittingly) encouraging practices which
could arguably subvert democracy, teachers are able to interpret the guidance
such that democracy is nonetheless promoted and protected in their practice.
Furthermore, we can infer from the language of the guidance that teachers can
achieve this by educating on FBVs
rather than reinforcing them.
Similarly, whilst some history concerning education policies and elements of the pretext for the introduction of FBVs and teachers’ obligation to promote and protect them might be seen to be racist and thus undermine FBV4, the FBVs, through being in essence Universal Values, are not themselves racist. Therefore, teachers are able to promote and protect FBVs without undermining them, again by educating on them.
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