How Can We Teach British Values In School If We Are Afraid To Assert Them Ourselves?

British Values Twitter 3

Just what are British Values?

Well, apparently the concept is sufficiently fuzzy in the minds of some people that we all now need to take time to argue amongst ourselves and reach a common consensus while one of the biggest and most worrying educational scandals in recent years plays out unobserved.

In response to the ongoing scandal of Birmingham schools being compromised by activist governors to deliver covert Islamic religious teaching, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, made the slightly awkward if well-meant assertion that in future, all primary and secondary schools will be required to “promote British values”.

The Guardian reports:

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has seized on a finding byOfsted that a “culture of fear and intimidation” existed in someBirmingham schools by announcing that the government will require all 20,000 primary and secondary schools to “promote British values”.

These values will include the primacy of British civil and criminal law, religious tolerance and opposition to gender segregation. Gove also suggested girls wearing the burqa would struggle to find their voice and must not feel silenced in the classroom.

In what is being described by ministers as a decisive shift away from moral relativism in the classroom, the education secretary took action after a landmark series of reports by the schools inspectorate into 21 Birmingham secular schools found an atmosphere of intimidation, a narrow, faith-based ideology, manipulation of staff appointments and inappropriate use of school funds.

Unfortunately, the predominant response thus far has not been one of outrage that such a thing could happen to compromise children’s education in the UK’s second city; instead, we have seen race to come up with the funniest self-deprecating anti-British putdown as expressed by the #BritishValues hashtag now trending on Twitter.

When presented with the opportunity to express outrage that local school curricula could be so easily hijacked by fundamentalist members of any faith and ‘turned’ to start promoting beliefs very far from the British values of democracy, equality, non-discrimination and obedience to the law, a majority seem more interested in having an introspective discussion about what modern British values really are (at best), or suggesting through Twitter witticisms that any concern is tantamount to xenophobic intolerance  (more common).

The Huffington Post has collated a selection of what it considers to be “the best” responses, which take an almost uniformly dim view of British culture and history:

British Values Twitter 4

(It should be acknowledged that there have also been some very sensible and thoughtful contributions from others, such as the pianist Stephen Hough).

The hashtag activist comedians and earnest scolds of Twitter currently attempting to look cool by running Britain down on social media are actually revealing a few ingrained British traits of their own – excessive self deprecation and an almost craven desire not to offend or appear controversial – which easily become insidious and harmful when taken to extremes.

There is a gnawing anxiety behind some of the mocking #BritishValues tweets. “Isn’t patriotism so old fashioned?”, they scream. “Let’s list all the bad things that Britain has done so that no-one thinks we’re being boastful”. It may come across as cool, trendy liberalism but look closer and you see that some of it is actually rooted in fear.

Somewhere along the way the idea of expressing pride in Britain, and in British exceptionalism, became interchangeable in the minds of many people with that altogether darker and more insidious disease of racism. To express the former is, in the eyes of many, to come uncomfortably close to embracing the latter. And as a result, people instinctively turn away from patriotism, and instinctively oppose suggestions such as teaching British values at school, mistaking it for something else (and, incidentally, leaving a vacuum that the far right is only too happy to exploit).

And yet there is a serious issue at stake here, with the integrity of children’s education in question. Even the Guardian’s John Harris felt the need to weigh in to the ongoing argument about the fundamentalist Muslim influence in Birmingham schools, reminding his readers that state-subsidised religious indoctrination or interference with the curriculum is wrong whatever the source, and that this is no time for those on the left to bury their heads in the sand:

At the risk of reopening old wounds on the liberal left, for all the noise from those on the right of culture and politics, it is no good crying “witch hunt” and averting your eyes from this stuff. It should have no place in any state school, and most of it is an offence to any halfway liberal principles.

But Harris still felt the need to couch his tortured article in the wider context of a state education system which is failing and falling into disarray under the hated Tory government – the harsh unexpectedness of his gentle reminder that it’s not okay to look the other way and pretend to ignore the fundamentalist corrupting of education for fear of seeming racist or intolerant having to be soothed with a good old swipe at the real enemy, those on the political right.

Efforts to stamp out casual and institutional racism in Britain, while incomplete, have come a long way, even since the 1980s and 1990s. A large part of eradicating the scourge of casual racism has been (quite rightly) to mock it, deride racist thoughts and speech as backward and out of place, and doing everything possible to make racism distinctly uncool. The campaign to eradicate racism from football is a prime example of how successful Britain has been, especially when compared with continental and eastern Europe.

But while there is unquestionably still much work to be done, we must also begin to ask ourselves if one of the side effects has been a growing inability for people to express deeply felt but harmless national pride and patriotism in any but the safest, media-approved settings (such as the 2012 London Olympic Games).

If our generation’s instinctive response when they see criticism levelled at a person or group within a religious or ethnic minority is not to check the veracity and demand action if it is found to be true, but either to flinch and avert their eyes out of shock and unwillingness to believe or to become so embarrassed that their only coping mechanism is to resort to self-deprecating humour on social media, perhaps this is the price that our country has to pay in order to purge itself of the ingrained, widespread, casual racism that was common and socially acceptable for so long. Perhaps.

But being this way makes it much harder for us to deal with the problems facing Britain today, where the pernicious influence of fundamentalists (of all religions) on the young and the lack of assimilation of some cultures into wider British society are real issues that are being only half-heartedly tackled because of the paralysing fear of saying the ‘wrong thing’ or giving the wrong impression.

When asked why it was that Americans are so much more openly patriotic than Brits, the late Christopher Hitchens attributed it to the fact that overt displays of patriotism and love of country in the United States are borne out of the fact that as a nation of immigrants, Americans have no real shared history going back more than a couple of centuries. Therefore, simple acts such as reciting the pledge of allegiance every morning in schools and singing the national anthem before sporting events have, over time, helped to forge that unity within diversity.

But what has always been true of America is now increasingly becoming true of Britain. Immigration into Britain may bring profound economic and cultural benefits, but with each successive year of high net immigration and a lack of assimilation in some quarters, that degree of shared common history is diluted a bit more. And that’s absolutely fine, if other measures are in place to balance it out – like reciting a pledge, offering comprehensive British history as a mandatory subject at schools, or, shock horror, teaching children “British values”.

At the moment, though, these countermeasures are lacking. It should come as little surprise then that certain groups within society do not feel as much desire or pressure to integrate as they rightly should, and that when the door is left wide open in places like Birmingham to influence schools to teach children according to certain subcultural norms, some people will seize the opportunity with both hands.

Unfortunately, in the age of hashtag #Britain, not only does it surprise us when this happens, the thought of condemning or intervening in these events embarrasses us so acutely that we are barely able to have a national conversation without descending to xenophobic conspiracy theorising on one side or accusations of scaremongering on the other, topped off with a sprinkling of nervously self-deprecating Twitter jokes.

As John Harris noted in his article, by this point “inflammatory language and alarmism” have now done their work and made it harder to get to the bottom of what has really been going on in Birmingham’s schools. But there is an equally powerful countervailing force working in the other direction, suggesting that any concern is an unwarranted attack on a minority and misrepresenting any calls for the assertion and teaching of British values as xenophobic, Islamophobic and a direct attack on the principle of multiculturalism. It is not.

If we carry on in this way, we will never succeed in building and maintaining the unified, diverse and tolerant Britain that we all say we want.


If you enjoyed reading this article, please take a second to LIKE or SHARE it on social media using the buttons below. Help to spread the word and continue the debate.


9 thoughts on “How Can We Teach British Values In School If We Are Afraid To Assert Them Ourselves?

  1. The Savvy Senorita June 11, 2014 / 1:09 PM

    Reblogged this on The Savvy Senorita and commented:
    Thanking Semi-Partisan Sam for this eloquent post, which I feel is highly relevant at the moment. What are British Values? It seems British people are uncertain, well, I for one know what my values are as a Welsh/British person! I would prefer to ask though, why are people so ashamed to be British? Why is embracing the history, culture and modernity of Britain seen as a joke or a racist thing to do? From what I can see most people view Britain as the place to be. Living in Madrid, I actually see more British flags adorning everything from phone cases to handbags than I do when I’m back in Britain! Britain has its issues, that is true, but then so too does every other country. For me, if you live in a country, you should have some pride for it, otherwise why live there!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Savvy Senorita June 11, 2014 / 12:56 PM

    Thank you for posting, and expressing these valid points so eloquently. I for one agree with you whole heartedly. Talking pride is not the same as talking racism, this confusion of topic really annoys me. It is almost as though it is done purposefully to silence people from airing their views. I see that the UK does possess its faults (past and present), but to be depreciating of your own country all the time really does signal something more profound is a miss. I am proud to say I am Welsh/British; after all, it has partially made me who I am as a person. Thanks again, Bex

    Liked by 1 person

    • Semi-Partisan Sam June 11, 2014 / 11:07 PM

      Many thanks Bex for reading and leaving that comment, it’s good to hear from others who feel the same on the issue. It is worrying when so many peoples’ first reaction to the Michael Gove / British Values story was to take to Twitter to make jokes and poke fun at Britain. I do think it speaks to a deeper unease in the country with expressing feelings of patriotism and national pride, which is a shame. And the danger is that if people feel they cannot express their patriotism in a healthy way, some will become resentful and resort to unhealthy options like the far-right.

      When I look at the United States and see the way that people are able to express patriotism so freely there (singing the national anthem before sporting events, being proud of their home state and country as a whole, honouring those who serve in the military etc.) it does make me wish that we could import a little bit of that spirit back home to the UK.

      Thanks for reading again!


      • The Savvy Senorita June 13, 2014 / 2:39 PM

        No problem, my pleasure. I re-blogged the post too, as felt it was so relevant, and eloquently written!

        I do agree with what you say about the States. I’ve spent time there, and have many friends from there; they are indeed proud of their heritage, but also proud to be an American citizen. Here in Madrid I have also noticed how patriotic they are, to a fault, and similarly in France also; it puts the British to shame. Yet, I often wonder whether other countries have helped instil the bad British image; heavy drinkers, loutish behaviour and the fact we want Britain in every country we go to (like Mallorca in Spain). I don’t agree with this though, as I see most cultures cling to what they know when they visit or live in another country. I actually feel you should always be proud of your heritage/culture/country, wherever you are in the world!

        I feel if people aren’t proud of their country, somehow they can’t be proud of themselves, of their roots. I have been brought up to feel patriotic, and not feel strange in telling people I’m Welsh, I’m from Britain, and proud. Of course Britain isn’t without its faults, but then all countries have them! If we lose faith and hope in our country it won’t help solve those faults, not if we all abandon it!

        I also think a fall in patriotism relates to how Britain is not as united now, as it claims to be. There is after all devolution, and even areas like Devon/Cornwell have their own cultural identity and flag. Perhaps we all want some more independence, and want to champion our own individual areas, but maybe feel too that Britain is letting us down. If we don’t unite though, we can’t make a positive change. All in all, I’m still proud to say I’m Welsh/British.

        Thanks again, Bex


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.