Ok, a lot has been written about so-called ‘British values’ lately but, sorry, I’m going to add my two-pennyworth. Do we really want our children and grandchildren to be taught ‘British values’ in schools? What are they? The Magna Carta of 1215 has been mentioned – well, Britain and the world might just have changed a bit since then. We are living in a multicultural country in a globalised, international world where people move about, do business with and have relationships with people from other countries and cultures and global issues effect us on a daily basis. Politicians have bandied about things such as ‘individual liberty’, ‘mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’ and ‘respect for the rule of law’. But there’s nothing particularly British about these – they are universal values reflecting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drawn up after the second world war – it’s on the United Nations website and is peppered with words such as freedom, dignity, tolerance, equality and justice. Ok, it’s still the stuff of history, but at least it’s in the 20th century and its values are couched in international law. Surely we in Britain don’t believe that we have the moral highground over the rest of the world where values are concerned. It seems to me that a cheap nationalism card has been played in order to pander to racist and xenophobic groups in the UK.
I also think that the concern over a small number of school governors in schools in largely Muslim catchment areas of Birmingham allegedly introducing Muslim practices and ethos into schools, which sparked the British values debate, has been blown out of all proportion. Ok, if this is proved to have happened, it’s serious – but surely it’s the role of governors that should be looked into calmly, rather than an overheated media demonising Muslims and stirring up yet more Islamaphobia with dramatic language such as ‘Trojan horse’ and ‘draining the swamp’. And there’s a degree of hypocrisy coming from the Education Secretary and Department for Education (DfE) since the academies involved in the Birmingham debacle, although inspected by Ofsted, are, as I understand it, answerable centrally to the DfE and educational pundits are saying monitoring hasn’t happened effectively. Some schools, therefore, have little accountability (you could include free schools in this too). And local authority education departments, that would have been well placed to understand local issues and communities, have been cut back and disempowered. As one commentator put it recently: ‘We have a state education system in a complete disarray’. Could it be that the British values issue is a diversionary tactic to take our eye off this particular ball? There’s also an element of hypocrisy in the claims and accusations – gender segregation in schools, for example, is not exclusively a Muslim issue – there are other single sex schools in the the UK, such as Eton and schools that run sessions such as sport and games separating boys and girls. And there’s a whiff of double standards too since if such issues had been reported in a faith school they would have been accepted and respected.
One school was reported by Ofsted to be failing ‘properly to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain’ – there are double standards at work here too For example, not so very far from where I live in Essex, there’s a state Church of England primary school in a rural setting where precious little reference is made to other cultures and religions. How do children develop ‘mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs’ when they know very little about them? Prejudice and discrimination stem from ignorance and fear of the unknown. Ok, this is a primary school, but how are its pupils going to relate to other children in a large secondary where there might be high numbers of pupils from diverse backgrounds? There must be other schools up and down the country in communities which are relatively monocultural who feel that teaching about different cultures and faiths has absolutely nothing to do with them.
Indeed, places exist in Britain that have been described as ‘white flight’ areas, often in the countryside outside London where white Brits have moved because they do not like the fact that London is a multicultural city (by which they generally mean the inclusion of black and Asian communities). But, of course, people from diverse backgrounds are increasingly moving out to country areas too (like my daughter’s family) for various reasons, including the high cost of rent and property in London. What is being done by some schools in these areas to ensure an inclusive environment for children from families of diverse backgrounds? Well, it seems, not a lot. For example: a local council was proposing to create a traveller’s site near a village – up went the banners against the proposal, a petition was started and one local school had leaflets against the travellers’ site sent home in children’s school bags. At another local school (a Cof E state primary) a poster of Kitchener (a first world war army recruitment poster later highjacked by the British National Party) appeared on a tree in the playground with the words ‘Save our village’ on it.
A parent took it to the school office and told the staff that it was inappropriate to have it in the school grounds. ‘But we represent the community,’ was the response, ignorant of the requirement for schools not to put forward politically partisan views. So much for ‘respect and tolerance’. The parent received an apology from the Head Teacher, but the school did nothing to prepare its children by way of sessions about different backgrounds such as those of the traveller children who would be going there. No ‘prepar[ing] pupils for life in modern Britain’ here then.
And a recent report by Oxfam showed Britain as one of the most unequal countries in the developing world – in about 20 years’ time we are in danger of returning to ‘levels of inequality not seen since Victorian times’. So we haven’t our egalitarian values quite right, have we? No moral superiority there. So let’s not throw about jingoistic stuff about British values – we are all human beings living in this world – it’s universal values we need such as those based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are what we must aspire to and teach our children and grandchildren about. We need to get going – it seems to me that in Britain there’s a way to go