British values? Pupils should be questioning the rule of law

Posted on: 14 Jan 2015

Following the events in Paris last week, the role of schools in helping fight radicalisation is under the spotlight. But how should schools teach British values? Michael Goodwin, headmaster of Quaker Sibford School.

My school, along with others, received notification one Friday recently of changes that were to come into force just three days later in the way we look after pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.

There had been a consultation over the summer holiday, but the sudden implementation left some of us feeling breathless. Governors must henceforth, we were told, ensure that schools “actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs …”

The Friends School Council, which supports Quakers in education, had argued in the consultation that “British values” should be replaced by “human rights” or “international law”, but this view was seemingly not taken on board.

At a time when the UK government is sending bombers to the Middle East, we had a weekend to think what the “fundamental British values of democracy” might actually be. Are British values different from French or Swedish ones? How can governors really ascertain the level of our activity in promoting these values, whatever they might be? Can we look at values without seeing how these are translated into action? And should we really promote an unquestioning adherence to the rule of law?

As a Quaker, I tend to believe that we should at the very least question the rule of law, and indeed, on occasion, feel compelled to break it. The Quakers’ guide publication Advices And Queries says: “Respect the laws of the state but let your first loyalty be to God’s purposes. If you feel impelled by strong conviction to break the law, search your conscience deeply.”

It has been the questioning and challenging of the rule of law that has shaped and developed some of the British values that we are now asked to promote. Acceptance of the law would have meant that slavery remained legal, that homosexuality was a criminal offence and that women were wrong to campaign for universal suffrage.

It is not difficult to find modern examples of activity endorsed by the government that would seem to breach the demand that we “encourage respect for democracy” and “further tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions”. The sale of the teargas used against demonstrators in Hong Kong by UK arms company Chemring is unlikely to be condemned by the government.

Indeed, as Sarah Waldron from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) said: “Last year’s arms fair in London welcomed some of the most authoritarian regimes in the world and those who profit from their brutality. The deals done here fuel death, injury, fear and repression – yet instead of banning it, the government helps make it happen.”

Those who felt impelled to draw attention to this anomaly were arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass.

At least the new regulation requires governors to encourage respect for other people, “paying particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010”.

How does “freedom of speech” – which is surely a British value that all of us could agree is central to our democracy – and the requirement that, in political issues, students “are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views”, sit with this insistence that we not only must enable “pupils to acquire a broad general knowledge of public institutions and services in England” but we also must enable them to have respect for those same institutions and services (though not, by the way, for the Welsh or Scottish ones, which are presumably not deemed worthy of respect in our British-value driven culture).

Of course we want students’ experiences not to be blighted by bigotry but this authoritarianism – motivated by a fear that multiculturalism has failed in some of our communities – is not a clear or practical way forward.

I object from a liberal Quaker perspective to the idea that the individual conscience isn’t valued: am I guilty of brainwashing in expressing this principle to my students? I think that one of Quaker schools’ strengths is that we do not believe we have a monopoly over the truth and actively encourage our students to question authority. This falls far short of the proselytising that the establishment seems to accept from many faith schools, who can demand, for example, church attendance as a condition of admission.

I worry that this new legislation sounds like authoritarianism and could be the basis for heresy hunts.

At our school we will hold on to some values that are wider than “British” and might look for our inspiration to human rights legislation and international law. Above all, we hope that we can translate some of these values into student action, including the right to protest.

Michael Goodwin is headteacher of Sibford school, one of seven independent Quaker schools in the UK and Ireland.

This article first appeared in The Guardian

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