Teaching British Values

Speech given by John Denham MP on Wednesday June 25th in a Westminster Hall debate on teaching British values. Check against delivery.

Mr Chairman. I’m grateful for this debate on teaching British values. I’ve engaged with this issue since I was a Home Office Minister, but today’s debate follows the Government recent announcement that all schools will be required to promote British values.

Media coverage has polarised between supporters of the government and those who treat the whole idea of promoting British values with some derision or concern.

I’m in neither camp.

I do believe that nation-building – the conscious attempt to create a strong, cohesive society with a strong national story and shared values – is now a national imperative.

Schools should be in the business of ‘nation-building’.

I don’t agree with those who have argued that talking about Britishness is really rather unBritish.

But I’ve real concerns that the government’s approach is ill judged and may be counter-productive. I’ll argue for a more rounded and more constructive approach.

This is a critical moment.

Three years ago, in Munich, the Prime Minister ended support for what he called ‘state-multiculturalism’. He didn’t just say multiculturalism was dead, he put nothing in its place

Even though Britain was continuing to experience rapid social and economic change with large scale if unplanned immigration.

From the 1960s governments did their best to make an increasingly diverse society work; tackling racism and discrimination, unfairness in public services, disadvantage in education.

For the first time in over 50 years, we have had no clear state policy, no clear government philosophy about how we were all to live together successfully

Today’s problems don’t start or end this government, but this was an unfortunate time to leave the field of play; to abandon attempts to set out how a strong cohesive society can be built.

There was a desultory little document on integration from CLG – little more than a list of local good practice examples – and that was it.

For all the strong bonds between people of different backgrounds which do exist, not for decades has this country felt so ill at ease with itself, so uncertain about where it is going.

So the new initiative to promote British values is significant. It may be badly designed, but rather than dismiss it, we should welcome any sign of a renewed interest in how our country can work.

I am clear.

A diverse but sometimes divided Britain needs more than a hope and a prayer 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. Promoting respect for difference and acceptance and tolerance for new communities has worked well, and, in general, more successfully than in European countries which took a different path.

But in promoting respect for difference, multi-culturalism failed to emphasise or develop what we hold and value in common. It was clearer about what new communities could expect from the established communities than what was expected from the new communities.

The limits of value-neutral multiculturalism are clear. We need more emphasis on what we share, while continuing to value our differences.

So I argue, that nation building, emphasising what we share as well as valuing difference, must not fill the gap where mutli-cultrualism has been found wanting.

Some have argued that we did not need to share that much.  The Parekh report reflected the idea that, provided we all saw ourselves as citizens under the law, or even as communities under the same law, not much else mattered. The Goldsmith report ‘Citizenship: our common bond’ was based on a similar, legal, view of citizenship.

Of course, respect for the law is vital. And our society would be stronger if everyone understood and respected the laws which currently exist to promote equality, freedom of speech, and the right to vote, and to oppose discrimination, incitement and female genital mutilation.

But saying we are simply citizens under the law is not enough. It’s just not how anyone feels about a real country.

It is nation building that helps 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.

In 2001 when I was a Home Office Minister. That summer, serious riots took place in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham. The conflict was between white working class young people and young people, overwhelmingly British born, of Pakistani Kashmiri origin. I was asked to lead the response and appointed a commission, headed by Ted Cantle, to look into what needed to be done.

The Cantle report painted a depressing picture: of communities that lived parallel lives, never mixing or speaking, educated in separate schools, enjoying less interaction between communities than their parents had done because the big factories where everyone worked together had closed.

It what that report said about citizenship and common values that I want to refer to now.

Talking about parallel lives the report concluded ‘In such a climate, there has been little attempt to develop clear values which focus on what it means to be a citizen of a multi-racial Britain [and many still look backwards to some supposed halcyon days of a mono-cultural society or, alternatively look to their country of origin for some form of identity’

The report called for ‘a greater sense of citizenship, based on a (few) common principle which are shared and observed by all sections of the community. This concept of citizenship would also place a high value on cultural differences.’

In order to develop some shared principles of citizenship and ensure ownership across the community we propose that a well reasoned national debate, heavily influenced by young people, be conducted in an open and honest basis. The resulting principles of a new citizenship should be used to develop a more cohesive approach to education, housing, regeneration employment other programmes.’

It’s fair to say that the Cantle Report was not with universal acclaim. Established race equality organisations insisted the real problem was racism and poverty. Some Muslim organisations rejected any implied criticism or responsibility for the way Muslim communities had evolved. Liberal voices, then as now, rejected the idea of shared British values. Some – I think wrongly – felt that the conclusions only really applied to a few places.

While the riots had taken place before the terrorist attack on 9/11, the Commission reported afterwards. Public policy became focussed much more on the threat of terrorism, which intensified after the attacks of 7/7.

So whilst Cantle had a real influence, not least on the funding of area based regeneration programmes, the debates he called for – debates in which young people themselves, not politicians, faith leaders or self appointed community representatives – were to lead; those debates never took place.

One real legacy was the responsibility on all schools, enshrined in the 2005 education act, to promote community cohesion. Ofsted was required to report on the implementation of this policy. It was much less ambitious than what was needed, but it was at least a start.

But, in truth, this is difficult work. Even though Cantle said ‘schools should not be afraid to discuss difficult areas, and the young people we met wanted the opportunity and should be given a safe environment in which to do so’ the Home Affairs Committee was told us that few teachers felt comfortable dealing with issues related to terrorism or the wars then being fought in Iraq or Afghanistan in their classrooms. A review of Diversity and Citizenship in the Curriculum in 2007 found that ‘few pupils had experienced lessons where they talked about things that people in Britain share’.

Today, some of those old issues still exist, and new ones have arisen.

Many schools have seen rapid social and demographic change. Some students come from families that are part of that change, and some from those who feel uncomfortable about it.

If our schools – particularly secondary schools – can’t provide a safe space to discuss these issues, it doesn’t mean students won’t talk about them. Just that they will talk about them in isolation, in separate groups and communities, in dangerous place off and online.

Schools and teachers need to be properly supported and resourced if they are support those discussions.

As Sir Keith Ajegbo’s review of diversity and citizenship reported ‘If children and young people are to develop a notion of citizenship as inclusive, it is crucial that issues of identity and diversity are addressed explicitly – but getting the pedagogical approach right will be crucial: the process of dialogoe and communication must be central to pedagogical strategies for citizenship…..

And Sir Keith made another crucial point.  ‘in order to explore how we live together in the UK today and to debate the values we share, it is important they consider issues that have shaped the development of UK society – and to understand them through the lens of history’.

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. The existing guidance says nothing, for example, about the extra responsibilities that must fall on mono cultural schools to ensure their students have extensive contact with students from other backgrounds. Teaching tolerance of others is no subject for meeting, working and socialising with others.

Let me set out my concerns about what the government is proposing.

Firstly, the government has spent much of the past few years undoing the good work of schools.

Second, it is spending far more energy constructing a legal basis for intervening in schools than it is helping teachers to know how to promote British values. There are much simpler ways of dealing with the sort of problems we have seen in Birmingham.

Third, its legal definition of British values leaves too many contentious questions unresolved and carries many risks.

Fourth, all the attention has been focussed on the Muslim community, not enough on addressing all the people who will share in shaping Britain’s future.

Fifith, it has neglected the fact that we all have multiple identities, I am English as well as British. Insisting that our shared values are

And, finally, it is offering too little practical support for schools.

For four years, the government has actively undermined good work in schools.

Citizenship education has been weakened. Ofsted’s legal duty to inspect schools promotion of community cohesion was ended in 2011.

It promoted schools with greater autonomy to set their own curriculum and determine their own intake. The government has funded free schools like the Al Madinah school in Derby and it should not be surprised if its rhetoric and encouraged the idea that schools could be narrowly tied to one part of the community, or one set of parents.

Now it is scrambling for new powers to intervene.

In the current law and in the Government’s proposals, British values are democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs. No one will argue much with those.

But twice recently the Prime Minister has given different lists. He has spoken, for example, of accepting personal and social responsibility. He has spoken of respect for British  institutions.

British values cannot mean whatever the prime minister of the day, or the secretary of state means them to be. British values are crucial but they are not timeless.

The Britain I was born into was commonly racist and deeply homophobic. Much has changed today..

None of the values listed explicitly challenge racism, sexism or homophobia. You have to dig into the draft regulations to read that British values are to be interpreted as meaning the Equality Act 2010.

Now I welcome the Equality Act 2010. But you can hardly describe it is a timeless British value. But these just emphasises that we – and more importantly, school students – can only understand these statements of values and what they mean today by understanding the history, the arguments, the campaigns, the political arguments that have led to these changing attitudes.

Better to see that Act as a snap shot of where our national debate had reached in 2010. And not everyone will support all its values.

This Parliament has sanctioned gay marriages despite the opposition of England’s established church. Upholding the law means respecting gay marriage. But where does this leave the millions of people of many faiths who believe gay marriages is wrong?

To me, a key part of Britishness is the principled and practical compromises we reach to handle these differences. This is complex, subtle, ever changing, it is democratic in the best sense of the word. It does not lend itself to law.

But once the government’s regulations are challenged –as they will be -it will be the courts that define what British values mean. Is that what the government wants?

When the government wants schools to promote active participation in democracy it is, no doubt, concerned to catch those who would advocate an Islamic caliphate. Where will that leave, in law, those non-voting communities – Jehovah’s Witnesses, Brethren and others who we have never felt the need to trouble too much?

I would say to the Minister, be careful about where this might end up.

Some of the activities in some Birmingham schools: the harassment of able teachers, the imposition of narrow dress codes, restricted curricula, racist stereotyping and gender segregation, are absolutely unacceptable.

But this can and should be dealt with directly.

I suggest that 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. Failure to do this should be the basis for intervention.

Turning to the question of British values. Are education ministers in Wales, Scotland and indeed Northern Ireland – said are taking similar measures? If not, why promote British values only to the English? People here are more inclined to put their English identity first. In some areas, white students will be likely to describe themselves as English, and BME students to describe themselves as British.

These are not trivial issues for the teacher who has to confront and handle them in the classroom.

The nation building I want must recognise that we all have multiple identities, faith, nation, ethnicity, locality. Not assume we will be a homogenous whole.

And the nation building we need has to include many people who currently have widely differing views about the state of Britain.

We all have constituents who feel insecure, that their British or English identities are under threat. They need to accept the clock can’t be turned back, but must be reassured and feel they have a voice. We all have some of those who recently admitted to rising levels of prejudice. Fail to tackle this and our society will come apart. We all have newer communities yet to find their full place in our society – here but not yet fully here. We all have those who are happy with the way things are and who welcome change. They can actually be part of the problem if they lightly dismiss the concerns of their neighbours.

Nation building means finding the common ground, and the common values, that can bring these different.

And it doesn’t help if just one community is singled out as the problem. And that’s what the government has done.

‘Cameron tells UK Muslims: Be more British’: screams the Mail on Sunday. No doubt some spin doctor was pleased with that.

Though there are real and current concerns about extremism and radicalisation, the promotion of British values should not be about one community or one faith. Yes, given the conflicts involving Muslims around the world, given the links of faith and family to some of those conflicts, and given the activities of radicalisers and recruiters there are dangers and  challenges for some young Muslims that do not face affect other young people. But all the more important to get it right.

Ministers have equated conservative theology with anti-British values and with the promotion of extremism. Yet the government’s own Extremism Taskforce concluded

As the greatest risk to our security comes from Al Qa’ida and like-minded groups, and terrorist ideologies draw on and make use of extremist ideas, we believe it is also necessary to define the ideology of Islamist extremism. This is a distinct ideology which should not be confused with traditional religious practice.

The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have deliberately muddied the water, either through ignorance or because of the unresolved battle between the Home Office and the Department for Education.

Either way, it has alienated many Muslims – the majority who disapprove of what went on in Birmingham as well as those who don’t, and it has undoubtedly heightened fear and worry in other parts of society.

As I have said, knowing the difference between religious conservatism and extremism does not mean we don’t tackle unacceptable practices in schools. But the way the Government has handled the issue has made a serious and important discussion about meeting the needs of Muslim children in today’s Britain less rather than more likely.

Our challenge is not to bring one supposedly disloyal community into line, but to bring together people from many different communities into a cohesive society and a strong national identity.

We should not under-estimate that challenge.

So I end with five practical proposals.

First, the Government should endorse the idea of nation-building; of creating a strong, cohesive society with a strong national story and shared values.

Second, it should shift its emphasis from constructing legal powers to intervene, based on promoting British values, to providing teachers and schools with the powers and resources they need to do it well

Third, the government should set out a simple test for all publicly funded schools – faith, community, academy or free – should be required to maintain an environment that is genuinely welcoming to all students of all backgrounds. That, rather than the rather tortuous test of promoting British values should be the basis for inspection and intervention.

Fourth, citizenship and the promotion of strong national values should be restored to its proper place in the curriculum and made part, once again, of Ofsted’s normal inspection regime. As part of that the Government should take a fresh look at how we ensure that students in monocultural, or mono-faith schools enjoy wider opportunities to meet, work, study and socialise with those from other schools and other backgrounds.

Fifth, the Government should recognise the importance, not just of teaching national values, but of involving young people in debating, exploring and shaping them. Just as British values are different today to those when I was born, so will they be again in 60 years times. It is today’s young people who will, together, decide whether our country works or not.