Michael Gove. Flickr/Policy Exchange.
Week after week, we are confronted with yet more stories of young people choosing to abandon their families, communities and country to join the evil that is ISIS. The news that a seventeen year old from Dewsbury had blown himself up in Iraq was just one story among an ever increasing multitude. Teachers, especially those with experience of working in economically deprived Muslim communities, are particularly concerned. We take the propaganda threat from ISIS every bit as seriously as David Cameron and Theresa May, and hope dearly that the hateful filth ISIS continues to spread does not influence the bright young minds we have had the privilege to teach.
Rightly, the government and Ofsted Chief have acknowledged the crucial role schools have to play in dealing with this important issue of our time. All children, not just Muslim children, need to have a better understanding of the society in which they live. They need to understand their rights and responsibilities every bit as much as they need to know how to write and read, for children cannot be expected to play an active role in our democratic system unless they have been explicitly taught how.
Following the 2014 Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham, then education secretary Michael Gove responded by insisted schools teach British Values in schools. This ‘promotion’ is now compulsory from nursery teaching upwards. The teaching of British Values forms a central part of the government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, which predominantly seeks to prevent Islamic extremism but also extremist right wing groups. Of course, protecting its citizens from deadly threats will always be the first duty of government. However, when it comes to teaching and learning in our schools, we need to be a lot more ambitious than simply trying to prevent the bad; we need to empower and enable the good.
The government’s guidance tells teachers they have a statutory duty to promote the British Values of ‘democracy’, ‘the rule of law’, ‘liberty’, and ‘tolerance.’ Now, firstly one might question what is exclusively ‘British’ about these quite universal liberal values, especially when in our globalised world citizens are able to have functional loyalties to more than one nationality. One might also ask what committee experts was authorised to decide that it is these four concepts alone that truly epitomise what it is to be British. However, even if we do accept these concepts as the dominant British Values, there is something highly problematic about simply instructing teachers to ‘promote’ them.
As any experienced teacher will know, you do not get far simply by ‘preaching’ to children. Children need to opportunity to explore, question, and even critique. Take ‘democracy’ – it is no good simply promoting democracy in Britain as an unquestionable truth. Yes, children should be taught how lucky we are to enjoy to democratic freedoms we do enjoy. However, we mislead children terribly if we imply that such democracy has always been an innate value of the British establishment; they must realise that the only reason women have the vote today is because of the radical (dare I say, ‘extremist’) direct action of the suffragettes. Furthermore, children need the opportunity to question whether our democracy is as robust as it could be. Classrooms should see children exploring whether it is fair that young adults, aged 16-17, and are not allowed to vote for Britain’s future in the EU. They should have the opportunity to question whether we truly live in a meritocracy, where individuals from any background are able to rise to the top.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt since becoming a teacher is the immense understanding young people have of right and wrong. They understand acutely when something is unfair. They are quick to call-out the slightest hint of favouritism from the teacher; they will step up to defend their peers from bullies. Equally, many witness (and directly experience) the immense lack of fairness that lies beyond the classroom.
As teachers, we can present a shiny PowerPoint presentation insisting that everyone enjoys equality before the law, but black and Asian pupils who continue to be disproportionately stopped and searched – often on their way home from school- know this not to be true. We can give assemblies on how lucky we are to live in such a tolerant country, but when twelve year old children have grown men yelling “Terrorist scum!” at them as they enter the mosque (a true story from one of my former pupils) they will simply feel they are being lied to by those they are meant to look up to.
These are just two case studies, but we all know there is a great deal more that takes place every day in our society that directly contradicts the “British” Values we are now instructed to promote. Some of these contradictions, such as the stop and search example, are within the power of government to put right. Therefore, one could cheekily argue that government ministers ought to promote their beloved British Values themselves before telling us to do so. However, being realistic, we are aware this is unlikely to happen overnight.
However, a more modest proposal is –if “British” Values are to be taught- that they are not simply promoted as unequivocal fact. Rather, children need to be given the space in classrooms for genuine political discussion, being allowed to critique the status quo and develop the practical tools to fight for positive change in their communities and country. They need to be given the time to empathise with one another, with pupils understanding the privileges and disadvantages they have in relation to one another.
Sadly, we know the government is not keen to empower pupils to critically explore social and political issues. We saw this when Michael Gove abolished the teaching of Citizenship against the wishes of many passionate citizenship teachers. Citizenship, despite having also emerged from an anti-extremism strategy under the Blair government, was beginning to blossom into a thriving subject covering everything from local campaigning to global environmental protection.
We can conjecture why a government, whose cabinet is far from representative of Britain today, may not wish to empower the masses. However, we also need to acknowledge that instructing children to patriotically believe in values that they don’t actually enjoy the fruits of themselves (equality before the law, tolerance, liberty, democracy) will not help foster their sense of belonging to Britain. Rather, at worst, it could only serve to make the disadvantaged feel even more separate. Allowing pupils to engage in a meaningful and critical study of society via the sharing of lived experience, on the other hand, could be more successful in instilling within young people a true sense of belonging within communities, even if such belonging is to each another and not to Queen and country.