British values, human values

Posted on June 26th, by Harriet in A Brush With The Law. No Comments

The head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, has said that schools must do more to promote ‘British values.’

Curious as to what British values might be, beyond tea, politeness and weathering the weather, I checked up on what the Department for Education had said.

Government advice published in November 2014 defines an understanding of British values as follows:

• an understanding of how citizens can influence decision-making through the
democratic process;

• an appreciation that living under the rule of law protects individual citizens and is essential for their wellbeing and safety;

• an understanding that there is a separation of power between the executive and the judiciary, and that while some public bodies such as the police and the army can be held to account through Parliament, others such as the courts maintain independence;

• an understanding that the freedom to choose and hold other faiths and beliefs is protected in law;

• an acceptance that other people having different faiths or beliefs to oneself (or having none) should be accepted and tolerated, and should not be the cause of prejudicial or discriminatory behaviour; and

• an understanding of the importance of identifying and combatting discrimination.

This list has been widely summarised as:

The Rule of Law
Individual liberty
Mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

So far, so good. Who among us would not want our young people to appreciate and understand these principles?

My problem is not about teaching these values. It is about teaching that these values are British.

Many countries base their societies on democracy and the Rule of Law. None of these values is exclusively British. I am not suggesting that the Department for Education or indeed Ofsted believes that they are. They, I am sure, would readily agree that these are the values we would expect to see espoused and promoted in any state we might call ‘civilised.’ The problem is that they are being called British, and this conveys a message.

It is a divisive and dangerous message which, in my opinion, serves to encourage a perception of ‘them and us’ among young people.

If these are British values, then we might assume that other countries, and people within this country of other nationalities, do not share them. We might assume that in order for those countries to become more civilised, they need to become more British. We might assume that in order to be safe, we need to promote Britishness and be afraid of anything or anyone different.

How does this help our young people to be tolerant and to combat discrimination? How does it help everyone in this country to feel that they belong?

Would it be difficult to encourage schools to promote these values but to call them human values?

Of course it would not be difficult. The difference is one word, the utterance of a fraction of a second, but the difference is also vast. Describing anything as ‘human’ embraces all those willing to be included. Describing that same thing as British excludes most of the planet and many of those who live here. Which should we choose?

If it would not be difficult, then the answer to the logical next question, which is ‘then why is it not done?’ is a political one. I am not going there, today.

Here is my proposal:

Teach young people the importance of democracy, the Rule of Law, liberty and tolerance and call these human values.

By all means teach British values. Having grown up largely outside this country I’ve observed these to be:

Extreme politeness
Cheerfully accepting barely bearable weather
Avoiding embarrassment at all costs
Intolerance of hot weather on weekdays

Apart from the weather-related ones, I have learned to live by these values. They are, however, optional. Drink more tea, be more British. Be immune to embarrassment, be less British. Either way, you can still be a decent human being.

Being British does not make you a better person, just a more…British one. Words are important and powerful. We need a better world, not a more divided society. For a safer, wiser future we need to teach human values.

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