What are Fundamental British Values Anyway?

What are Fundamental British Values? Question marks and images of Fish and Chips, People Queuing, The Queen and British posters
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The introduction of the new duty placed on schools to promote ‘Fundamental British Values’ alongside the duty to prevent extremism, has created a stir of controversy, criticism and confusion amongst the teaching profession. The first reference to ‘Fundamental British Values’ in government policy was in the 2011 Prevent Strategy. The Home Office stated that it would only fund or work with Muslim organisations which were seen to be espousing these values. The first time they are referenced with regards to education is in the Teaching Standards introduced in 2012, which state that teachers need to uphold public trust by ‘not undermining Fundamental British Values’.
Then, in 2013, an anonymous, undated letter entitled Operation Trojan Horse appeared. It was allegedly from an Islamic group in Birmingham spearheading an plot to create organised disruption, get rid of head teachers and leadership teams and replace them to ensure that schools adhered to strict Islamic principles. It very quickly came to light that the letter was a hoax. However, if the purpose of the letter was to stir up trouble, the authors certainly succeeded. The ‘plot’ was rarely out of the headlines for months. In the wake of the publicity, the NAHT, Birmingham City Council and the DfE all held enquiries. Ofsted was sent into 21 schools to conduct snap inspections.

The enquiries and investigations did not uncover a plot, or any evidence of criminality, but instead focussed on the religious practices in some of these schools. A DfE official was reported as saying, “religious conservatism is getting in the way of learning and a balanced curriculum”. As a result, five schools were placed into special measures, four lined up for takeover and 11 others taken to task – mostly for not teaching children enough about the threat of terrorism and extremism. In the wake of this affair the duty for schools to promote ‘Fundamental British Values’ was introduced as part of Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural education. In March 2015, the Education Committee slammed the Department for Education and Ofsted for their handling of the Trojan Horse affair… but the duty remains.
The duty to promote Fundamental British Values remains closely entwined with the Preventing Extremism agenda. After the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris, Nicky Morgan stated that the attacks served as a reminder of why it was so important that schools were teaching Fundamental British Values. In a speech about Islamic extremism delivered by Theresa May in March 2015 she mentioned British values no less than 13 times. Mention of promoting Fundamental British Values is included within the new Prevent duty guidance which came into force with the passing of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act earlier this year.

Both Preventing Extremism and Fundamental British Values are now being inspected on by Ofsted, who cite pupils’ ‘acceptance and engagement with the Fundamental British Values’, leadership and management’s ‘active promotion’ of the British values, ‘keeping pupils safe from the dangers of radicalisation and extremism’, and the ‘extent to which pupils are able to understand, respond to and calculate risk effectively’ as key areas of inspection. With very little training for Ofsted inspectors on what it is they are actually looking for in schools, as well as very little guidance for teachers on how to implement these duties practically, it is understandable that these new duties have been met with controversy and derision.

Indeed, recent research by the NASUWT found that 94% of just under 350 Black, Asian and other minority teachers said that they were concerned that the Government’s Prevent Agenda to tackle extremism might be used by schools to discriminate against or exclude Black, Asian and other minority staff or pupils. In addition, over 80% did not understand the implications for promoting Fundamental British Values in their school. Where work has been undertaken to promote Fundamental British Values, this has sometimes manifested itself in damaging interpretations of what it means to be British, using stereotypical images of Black cabs, London buses, the monarchy, St Georges Day and fish and chips to instil in pupils antiquated and stereotypical notions of British culture. Some schools have even interpreted the duty as meaning that they should celebrate Britain’s Imperial past. This interpretation of the duty creates a ‘them’ and ‘us’ dichotomy, where some pupils are seen to exist outside of the ‘us’ category as outsiders or suspicious. The promotion of Fundamental British Values in this way can therefore create division between communities, rather than cohesion, making Muslim pupils in particular feel as though their ‘Britishness’ is in question. This, in combination with the new Preventing Extremism duty, has led to many teachers feeling as if they are expected to police their young people, to spy on and notify the authorities of any young people who they become suspicious of. Indeed, EqualiTeach has seen first-hand how this is manifesting itself in everyday school life; one teacher felt they needed help with a young Pakistani pupil, who was, in the teachers’ eyes, showing too strong a commitment to his culture, talking and writing about different aspects of it whenever he could. This highlights a real issue in the interpretation of what it means to be British and what it means to not be British, creating environments that can be alienating and divisive for young people thought to not fit the mould.

So, what are Fundamental British Values anyway? The government has stated that the values that should be promoted are: democracy, individual liberty, rule of law, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. It is important to recognise that there is nothing about these values that are distinctively ‘British’ and by presenting them at British, there is a danger that, rather than create cohesion and understanding, the new duty could foster alienation and division, implying that Britain is somehow better and more civilised than other countries.

With all of this controversy and criticism surrounding the duties, how do schools go about sifting right from wrong in their approach to fulfilling these Ofsted requirements? Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, is the separation of the Values highlighted by the Government from any ideas of Britishness. The values underpin the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in accordance with this, should not be seen as British only Values, but as Universal Values. Indeed, over 100 countries have signed up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and have therefore given their commitment to achieving them. Rethinking the values in this way removes teaching from any mention of Britishness and prevents any conflation between British stereotypes and history and values education.

Teachers should be wary of adopting closed, indoctrination type approach to values education, which imposes values, ignores evidence, removes choice and autonomy from the student. Instead teaching about values should involve openness, a participatory approach in partnership with the learner, which involves discussion and the questioning of values and evidence in order for the learner to come to their own, evidence-based conclusions.

Much of this work will already be happening in schools, under the various different banners of spiritual, moral, social and cultural education, of citizenship and community cohesion work, of anti-bullying work and in work to advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations as set out by the Public Sector Equality Duty of the Equality Act 2010. In many cases, schools that enable pupils to democratically elect members of the school council or provide pupils and parents with the opportunity to have their say on school practices through yearly questionnaires, are able to show that they are actively promoting the value of democracy throughout the school. Likewise, if young people are being taught that it is important to speak up about their problems and share them with a trusted adult, or if opportunities are created for children to take on areas of responsibility within the school, schools are able to evidence their active promotion of the value of individual liberty.

Ultimately, therefore, the duty to promote Fundamental British Values must be navigated with care by schools; by continuing and bolstering the good work they are carrying out already around these issues, the duty can be fulfilled without needing to carry out work under the Fundamental British Values banner. Undertaking constructive values education does not just act as a preventative measure against radicalisation and extremism, but is a vital part of preparing young people to get on in life, creating critical thinkers and active citizens who respect others and challenge prejudice and discrimination. Where real concerns about radicalisation and extremism exist, these should be dealt through existing robust safeguarding procedures, and where further advice and guidance is needed, this should be sought from trained professionals who can help schools to support that young person further. With these systems and procedures in place, teachers are able to create spaces where their pupils feel safe and able to contribute positively, to challenge ideas, to think critically and to reject negativity and hate.

For more information about EqualiTeach’s approach to supporting schools to meet their duties to prevent extremism and promote Fundamental British Values in a positive and cohesive way, and for a case study of staff training about these topics, please visit here.

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