Since 2014 there has been a duty imposed on schools to actively promote ‘fundamental British values’ (FBV). There is concern that this is being used to wrong-foot certain communities and risks setting up a dichotomy between, for example, Muslim values and British values.  Julia Ipgrave argues that defining British values by fear signals a shift in thinking about the nature and direction of British society and the role of education within it.

Image: Flickr, Photography by eje

Earlier this summer, on 23rd June, Amanda Spielman, Head of the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, declared that, after recent terrorist atrocities in London and Manchester, ‘schools must do more to stop terrorism by properly promoting British values’. At times of crisis public statements such as these have much to say about the relationship between values, British society and education. The statement was unremarkable, the rehearsal of a common response to terrorist threat, but, in the context of ‘values’ and of June 2017, what should be remarkable is that no mention was made of the another recent tragedy that had seized public imagination, namely the horrendous fire in Grenfell Tower, just nine days previously. Were we to look for values in the case of Grenfell Tower we could observe their presence in members of the public who rallied round to help, and also their absence at the level of systems and governance – at that most basic level of looking after the needs of the poor and putting people’s wellbeing before profit. Grenfell poses an uncomfortable challenge to the identity claimed for Britain in Spielman’s speech as ‘a beacon of liberation, tolerance and fairness to the rest of the world.’ But the current ‘fundamental British values’ (FBV) agenda puts schools in the business of defending not critiquing ‘British values’. This distinction is significant as, by comparison with what went before, it signals a shift in thinking about the nature and direction of British society and the role of education within it.

In this regard, and in common with so much else in today’s world, the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center (and its aftermath) was something of a watershed in public perception, discourse and policy. The 2005 London bombings, perpetrated by British born terrorists, heightened the sense of urgency and, in more ways than one, brought the threat home. The education world was expected to respond. Ofsted’s 2007 report on religious education, for example, demanded of that subject, whether it was responding effectively to the ‘changing social reality’ post-9/11, its recommendation ‘we should dispense with the notion that we should encourage pupils to think uncritically of religion as a good thing’, introducing a new hermeneutic of suspicion into a multi-cultural/multi-faith curriculum. In this climate FBV have progressively moved into and up the education agenda from a component in Home Office discourse about the nature and prevention of violent terrorism in 2011, to a statement about teachers’ standards in 2012, to a duty imposed on schools to ‘actively promote’ FBV in 2014. This last move was a reaction the alleged ‘Trojan Horse’ plot (subsequently disproved) of an Islamist takeover of a number of Birmingham schools.

On the other side of the watershed is over twenty years of debate, policy and strategy seeking not just to fit pupils for another social reality but to work through education to help shape that reality. The 2000 report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain saw that time as a crucial juncture in the construction of ‘Britishness’. It set out a series of alternatives for the future of this ‘Britain at the crossroads’: static/dynamic; intolerant/cosmopolitan; fearful/generous; insular/internationalist; authoritarian/democratic; introspective/outward-looking; punitive/inclusive; myopic/far-sighted. The report clearly advocated the latter in each of these pairings, but post 2001 we have seen some erring towards the former, a movement in which education has been implicated. The ‘insular/internationalist’, ‘intolerant/cosmopolitan’ pairings are the subject for another conversation, but there are other pairings (‘fearful/generous’, ‘punitive/inclusive’, ‘static/dynamic’) that relate closely to my theme of British values, the test for these being educational responses to minority communities within society.

The landscape on the far side of watershed could be described as multicultural Britain and multi-cultural education. It is fashionable for us on the near side of the watershed to find fault with multiculturalism and some criticism is well-founded. We could talk of the reification of culture, cite the naïve, simplistic approach to a complex tangle of interlocking identities, identify discrepancies between ideal and practice, and, in particular, lament the neglect in multi-cultural discourse and strategy, of the identities of indigenous white working classes at a time of destabilising decline in Britain’s traditional industries. Nevertheless, if we delve beneath these practical and conceptual limitations, we can find a generosity of spirit lacking in more recent constructions of ‘Britishness’, a generosity manifested in a desire to include, responsiveness to people’s needs, respect for others in their difference, preparedness to open up self (established structures of acting and thinking) to criticism, and optimistic commitment to change (dynamism).

The 1985 Swann Report (Education for All) – claimed to be the founding document of multicultural education – starts ‘by setting out clearly our view of the kind of multiracial society for which we believe the education system should be preparing all youngsters and the extent to which the reality of life in Britain today is at variance with this ideal’. Here is both aspiration for British society and acknowledgement of current shortcomings. Rather than Britishness serving as a validating stamp on a set of values, Swann acknowledged its historically-rooted problems that need to be overcome if we are to align our attitudes and behaviours with universal principles of justice and equality. While Spielman speaks of Britain as a beacon to the rest of the world, Swann recognised how the legacy of empire has infected British attitudes to others with prejudice, patronising ‘unintentional racism’ and ‘the view of other nations and peoples as in some sense “inferior”’. The changes needed are institutional, attitudinal and entail some ‘cost in psychological terms’.

Research I carried out with colleagues at Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit between 2006 and 2012 into young people’s attitudes to religious pluralism found consistent evidence of the acceptance of the ideals, and adoption of the language of multiculturalism by school pupils, valuing diversity, open to the ‘other’ and aspiring to a religiously plural harmonious society. It was evidence of the working out of the spirit of Swann although this generous spirit was sometimes acknowledged to be fragile, susceptible to contrary influences from wider community, media and public discourse. Against their better judgement, some students admitted feelings of suspicion and fear of the ‘other’, when travelling in an aeroplane with someone of ‘Islamic appearance’, for example.

One principle underpinning the generosity of Swann is that it gives the person or the community the benefit of the doubt and questions the system, institutional and societal assumptions and norms. Uncomfortable evidence of the low academic achievement of minority children occasioned the scrutiny and critique of underlying assumptions in institutions (about ability and potential of ethnic minority students) and deficiencies in curriculum (where within it can children recognise themselves and learn to understand others?). The ultimate aim was (as Keith Joseph wrote in the preface), ‘a good education …which brings about a true sense of belonging to Britain’, but also to help create a democratic pluralist Britain worthy of the children’s belonging. To remove the obstacles of institutional racism from children’s education was one objective; another was to train them in a continuing critique, to ‘develop in all pupils … a flexibility of mind and ability to analyse critically and rationally the nature of British society today within a global context’.

This concept of society answerable to its members, contrasts with the approach signalled in the June 2014 Department of Education Press Release about the new obligation to teach FBV in schools; ‘Actively promoting also means challenging pupils, staff or parents expressing opinions contrary to fundamental British values’. The inclination to challenge reflects the origins of FBV in Home Office deliberations about the prevention of violent terrorism. In this context British values are defined by fear and presented as tools for flushing out potential terrorists. Opposition to ‘democracy’, ‘the rule of law’, ‘liberty’, ‘tolerance’ were the defining indicators of ‘extremism’, and so, according to a common but unsubstantiated jump of logic, of propensity to violence. When the agenda is security, values are employed as a testing ground not for society but for those suspected of undermining that society.

There have been numerous complaints about the heavy-handed way in which Ofsted inspections have been used to root out ‘extremism’ in schools since the Trojan Horse affair. A genuine concern is that particular interpretations of British values are being used defensively to wrong-foot certain communities, for example by making an issue out of the separation of girls and boys in some school activities. Swann was reluctant to over-determine what values are or are not British being and was open to the co-existence of various sets of values within a multicultural Britain so long as there is a shared commitment to justice and equality. With FBV, on the other hand, there is a risk of setting up a dichotomy between, for example, Muslim values and British values, and of alienating (literally ‘othering’) a group that a 2012 ISER study found most likely to identify with the concept of ‘Britishness’. A current research study among Muslim teenagers in London schools is uncovering tension between their sense of themselves as ‘normal teenagers’ and awareness of their ‘dangerous’ identity in the perspectives of others. And sometimes (to employ a concept given prominence by Swann) the issue is a question of absence. Inspection of the FBV requirement that pupils respect characteristics protected in the 2010 Equality Act, have given emphasis to knowledge about and attitudes towards homosexuality (in 2014 the Secretary for Education described negative views about homosexuality as extremist). This plays to the strengths of the Establishment (recent governments are justifiably proud of advances made in this area) yet puts some religious communities on the back foot. At the same time questions of socio-economic justice, where the positions of Establishment and faith communities would be reversed, are noticeable by their absence. Which takes us back to the question with which we began: why no mention of Grenfell Tower in discussion of British values? Perhaps because it is about victims of, rather than threats to, our society.

About the author

Dr Julia Ipgrave is senior research fellow at the University of Roehampton (Department of Humanities) and principal investigator for the London strand of the Religion and Dialogue in Modern Society project based at the Akademie Der Weltreligionen, University of Hamburg.


Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and the Public Sphere blog, or of the London School of Economics.