“Schools should be in the business of ‘nation-building’” says Denham, but Government’s approach to promoting British values is badly thought out and may be counter-productive
Mr Denham told the House of Commons in debate on Wednesday June 25th:
‘A diverse but sometimes divided Britain needs more than a hope that we will all rub along together. Young people do need a shared sense of our history and how we came to be sharing this land; they do need to understand how our past has shaped our values; and, crucially, they need to chance the debate and shape the values they will share in the years to come.
‘Those who dismiss the whole idea of promoting strong national values are wrong: In future, we need a conscious focus on nation building, and schools must play an important role.’
‘Multi-culturalism has not been the failure some say, but in promoting respect for difference it has failed to emphasise what draws us together. The limits of value-neutral multiculturalism are clear. We do need more emphasis on what we share while continuing to value our differences. The old idea that we are simply citizens under the law, or even just different communities sharing the same space, are not enough. This doesn’t help us forge the common national story, the sense of shared identity alongside the many other national, faith, ethnic, cultural or local identities we hold, that is needed for a cohesive and successful society.
‘Schools have a crucial role in promoting that national story.
‘But schools and teachers need to be properly supported if they are to enable students to understand the links between our history and today’s ethnic mix in the UK; to find, for example, the common stories between different communities whose forebears fought on the same side in two world wars; to understand how values like tolerance have constantly been reinterpreted and reshaped in every generation.
‘Values mean little without understanding the history that shaped them. Students need to debate and explore values themselves, not just be taught them as facts. Mono-cultural schools must ensure that students have many opportunities to debate, study, work and socialise with students of different backgrounds from other schools.
‘Students need to appreciate that how we handle our differences is as important to British values as the things we will all agree on’
‘This is difficult, challenging and sensitive work’ but Mr Denham also said that ‘current government initiatives fail to provide the leadership, support and resources that schools and teachers will need to play this crucial role’.
‘For four years, the government has actively undermined school work in developing shared values. It stopped Ofsted inspecting school work on community cohesion and downgraded citizenship education. It promoted schools with greater autonomy to set their own curriculum and determine their own intake, and encouraged the idea that schools could be narrowly tied to one part of the community, or one set of parents’
‘British values are crucial, but they are not timeless, unchanging and cannot be taught by dictat. As changing views on sexuality and race make clear, British values are constantly evolving. Most of us have multiple identities – national, and local, cultural, ethnic and faith. Ministers cannot just take the power to decide arbitrarily what today’s British values are or should be.
‘Some of activities in some Birmingham schools, including the harassment of able teachers, the imposition of narrow dress codes, restricted curricula, racist stereotyping and gender segregation, are not acceptable. But this can and should be dealt with directly. All publicly funded schools, of any intake or designation, should be required to maintain an environment that is genuinely welcoming to all students of all backgrounds.
‘Instead Ministers have unhelpfully equated conservative theology with anti-British values and with the promotion of extremism. Some Muslims have been alienated, and fears in other sections of society reinforced. It has made a serious and important discussion about meeting the needs of Muslim children in today’s Britain less rather than more likely. Though there are real concerns about extremism and radicalisation, this debate should not just be about Muslims, neither should they be treated as one homogenous community.
‘The challenge is to bring together people from many different communities into a cohesive society and a strong national identity. That most include all our constituents – those who currently feel sharply that their British or English identities are under threat, those who admit to rising levels of prejudice, newer communities yet to find their place in our society, those who are happy with the way things are and those who welcome change.
‘A thin and inconsistent list of values, backed by inadequate guidance and under-resourced is simply not up to the task’.
A full version of the speech can be found here.