Schooling ‘British values’: threatening civil liberties and equal opportunities

Attempts to secure ‘integration’ based on ‘British Values’ are not just infringing on civil liberties, but are also likely to damage student self-confidence and academic performance.

John Holmwood
20 July 2015
Michael Gove

The former Education Secretary led the 'British Values' agenda. Flickr/Policy Exchange. Some rights reserved.

The new Conservative Government recently set out its legislative objectives for the coming Parliamentary session. Ominously, this includes consultation on the replacement of the Human Rights Act by a British Bill of Rights and an ‘Extremism Bill’ enabling employers to check whether an individual is an extremist and barring them from working with children. Standing behind these legislative initiatives is a moral panic over ‘British values’ and a perceived failure of some ethnic communities to endorse them.

According to information leaked to the Sunday Times, over 100 teachers in Birmingham currently face the prospect disciplinary action from the Government’s National College for Teaching and Leadership and possible barring from teaching for life (30 have been charged and more are expected to be charged in due course). This is unprecedented. In the past, disciplinary action has only been taken against teachers involved in inappropriate relationships with children, or having been subject to criminal charges. In 2010 it was suggested by the Prime Minister that membership of the BNP should be sufficient to disqualify a teacher, but so far no teacher has been barred on that ground.

‘Anti-western thinking’

The cases here arise from the ‘Trojan Horse’ investigation of an ‘Islamist takeover’ involving 21 schools in Birmingham; the Sunday Times blithely describes the teachers under investigation as ‘Islamist’. Two overview reports were commissioned – one from Education Commissioner, Peter Clarke, the other from Ian Kershaw, reporting to Birmingham City Council – together with special Ofsted reports on 21 individual schools at the centre of the charges. A Parliamentary Select Committee also met to review the reports and take further evidence and concluded that, "apart from one incident, no evidence of extremism or radicalisation was found by any of the inquiries into any of the schools involved." The Department for Education suggests it “downplays the seriousness of events in Birmingham” and risks undermining the government’s efforts to tackle extremism.

The Select Committee concluded that there had been a failure of regulation and that the earlier positive Ofsted Reports that had found the schools to be good, or outstanding, had failed to notice deficiencies in the protection of children from extremism that were evident from the later reports (despite them observing fewer teachers and classes). In fact, the earlier Reports found tolerant and well-adjusted children and, in many cases, regarded this aspect of the inspected schools outstanding, to be later downgraded as failing. What if those earlier Ofsted reports had been correct and that only a heightened moral panic around the Prevent agenda and extremism in schools had led the later Ofsted teams to find failures? An indication of this febrile atmosphere is Scotland Yard Commander Mak Chishty’s view of the need to ‘invade the private spaces’ of Muslims in Britain to root out ‘anti-Western thinking’.

After all, the Ofsted Inspection Handbook (revised 2014) made no mention of the Prevent Strategy (2011). This is unsurprising, rather than worrying, because the latter declared that there were was little evidence of extremist radicalisation in young people under the age of 15 and was more concerned about a confusion of regulatory frameworks for different kinds of schools and with developing resources for schools to interpret ‘Prevent’ in a manner suitable for their circumstances.

The new Government has posted a notice on its website seeming to suggest that any laxity within the Department for Education is the fault of their former coalition partners.

Prevent Review

The new statement of clarification goes on to say that, “Prevent will make a clearer distinction between our counter-terrorist work and our integration strategy. Prevent depends on the success of that strategy. But the two cannot be confused or merged together. Failure to appreciate the distinction risks securitising integration and reducing the chances of our success.”

Yet integration seems to imply both that ‘British values’ have a secure basis and that there are other values potentially at odds with them. Just what are the ‘British values’ being promoted by the Government? Clearly not religious tolerance, if positive expression of Islamic culture and identity is taken as evidence of Islamification?

Destroying cultural self-confidence

But there are other serious concerns. Most of the schools that were targeted as part of the ‘Trojan Horse’ investigations had had poor records as far as pupil examination performance was concerned and were failing their predominantly Muslim and ethnic minority pupils. Many of them had recently reversed this situation and, according to earlier Ofsted reports had ‘good’, or ‘outstanding’ academic achievements. The later Ofsted reports produced for the ‘Trojan Horse’ investigations do not alter the earlier judgment of their academic achievements, merely arguing that they are failing to prepare children for life in modern Britain. What could be a better preparation than academic success and increased opportunity for further and higher education? Are these not also ‘British values’? Or is ethnic minority success something to be feared in a tight job market?

How did these schools achieve this success? Literature on African Americans and Latinos in the USA suggest that success in schools derives from self-confidence. This, in turn, derives from positive cultural identification with the dominant culture and that of their own ethnic group. This is what Telles and Ortiz (2008) describe as ‘bi-cultural identification’ and they find that a decline in positive identification with their own ethnic group leads to a decline in academic performances (as does a singular identification with that ethnicity), as pupils internalise the dominant culture’s low valuation and expectations of them. Yasui et al (2004) show that positive ethnic identification is associated with psychological adjustment, while Wong, Eccles and Sameroff (2003) show that perceptions of discrimination are associated with declining grades and weaker psychological resilience, which are mitigated by stronger ethnic identification.

There is evidence for these arguments in the aftermath of Trojan Horse in Birmingham. Recent Ofsted reports suggest that the new school managements have not produced any improvement in the governance of the schools, which was precisely the reason why they had been identified as failing (see, especially, the very critical June 2014 Section 8 Monitoring Inspection Report on Park View). However, the academic achievement of pupils has fallen significantly, following the criticism of the schools and their ‘Islamic’ values (see also the Select Committee Report).

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the great improvement in academic success in Birmingham schools prior to the panic over Trojan Horse are an indication that they successfully inculcated in pupils a pride in their own cultural background and an identification with the dominant culture’s definitions of success. Again, we might ask how this could be done. Sleeter (2011), drawing on the experience of African Americans, argues that one problem for children from ethnic minority backgrounds is the differential access to exemplary role models. If integration into ‘British values’ means teaching about the dominant culture, as in former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove’s strictures about the history curriculum, where do children learn about what is valuable in their own traditions and how those traditions intersect with that of the dominant culture?

Enter a special factor in the case of Birmingham, that of its religious education curriculum. All LEA schools are required to teach RE as part of the national curriculum.  Academy schools are exempted, but many of the Birmingham schools that moved from LEA to Academy status elected to continue teaching it. The Birmingham curriculum was revised in 2007 and is significantly different from that of other parts of Britain. Indeed, it is likely to be this difference that those who reviewed the Trojan Horse schools took as an indication of changes – Islamification – since schools shifted to academy status, rather than a continuation of a curriculum across most schools in Birmingham.

The new Birmingham SACRE curriculum was designed not to teach pupils about different religions – their beliefs and rituals, for example – but to exemplify values (or what it called ‘dispositions’) across all religious traditions. It identified 24 ‘universalisable’ dispositions at the heart of all religions – for example, ‘being temperate’, ‘being joyful’ ‘being attentive to suffering’, ‘being fair and just’, ‘being accountable and living with integrity’, ‘cultivating inclusion, identity and belonging’ – and asked how these were exemplified in different religious traditions. All religious traditions were brought under ‘values’ and no child would feel that his or her tradition was displaced.

What we should really fear

The Ofsted report of April 2014 on Oldknow Academy wrote that “the curriculum is inadequate because it does not foster an appreciation of, and respect for, pupils’ own or other cultures. It does not promote tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions.” It is hard to understand how the school could have such positive academic achievements were this to be true. It also suggests that the later report was framed by a fear of positive expressions of Islamic identity and a failure to understand the wider context of positive expressions of all religious identities that the Birmingham religious education curriculum had promoted. It is in marked contrast to the Ofsted Report 15 months before, which stated that, “the academy’s contribution to pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is exceptionally good. The very wide range of different cultures is celebrated, opportunities are provided for prayer at appropriate times, and assemblies reflect the different faiths groups in the academy… The academy is a friendly and racially harmonious place, where discrimination of any kind is not tolerated.”

If the academic studies I have cited are correct, the likely consequence of a Government-initiated moral panic over Birmingham schools will be worsening academic performance of pupils from Muslim backgrounds. It is also likely to conclude with the loss of livelihood and denigration of Birmingham teachers who contributed to an earlier improvement in academic achievement. We all have reason to fear ‘integration’ secured on ‘British values’.


Sleeter, Christine. 2011. The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies: A Research Review. National Education Association Research Department, Washington.

Telles, Edward E. and Vilma Ortiz. 2008. ‘Finding America: Creating Educational Opportunity for our Newest Citizens.’ In Brian D. Smedley and Alan Jenkins (eds.) All Things Being Equal: Instigating Opportunity in an Inequitable Time. New York: The New Press.

Wong C, Eccles J, Sameroff A. 2003. ‘The influence of ethnic discrimination and ethnic identification on African American adolescents’ school and socioemotional adjustment’. Journal of Personality. 71:1197–1232.

Yasui, Miwa, Dorhan, Carole La Rue, and Fishion, Thomas J. 2004. ‘Ethnic Identity and Psychological Adjustment: A Validity Analysis for European American and African American Adolescents’ Journal of Adolescent Research, 19(6): 807-825.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData