Conference Papers

Reconsidering British Values

Today all state-maintained schools in England are required to ‘promote’ – not merely teach – ‘fundamental British values’. This ‘active duty’, to espouse the values of ‘democracy’ ‘the rule of law’ ‘equal treatment’ ‘individual liberty’ and ‘tolerance’, is inspected by OFSTED to ensure compliance (OFSTED, 2015). Already some schools have failed. The law is controversial. Muslim leaders have reacted by suggesting the policy will engender inter-cultural suspicion, while some Catholics have argued there is ‘no phrase more sinister and pernicious than the oxymoronic ‘British values’’ (Catholic Herald, 2015).
The quest for social glue at a time of multi-ethnic complexity is not new but this latest policy is rife with difficulties. It presents a version of England reminiscent of M.V. Morton’s rosy and uncritical 1930s travelogue, In Search of England, or, more recently, Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island that, in its humorous adulation of ‘Marmite, village fetes and country lanes’, left out ethnicity and class antagonisms and was demonstrably unhistorical and apolitical (Parekh, 2002). The current vision is perhaps more attuned to Scruton’s England: An Elegy (2000) that Eagleton has ridiculed as a ‘vulgarly sentimental hymn to the English countryside, a land which may have been green but was rarely pleasant’.
The paper argues three things. First, the rise of sentiment for ‘little England’ along with a quest for British values is concomitant with the decline in trust for multi- and inter-culturalism and that this is to be regretted. Second, despite the requirement that teachers promote British values, the list bypasses nuance, complexity and contradiction. What, for example, constitutes the right to ‘freedom of speech’ without clear consideration of the purpose of hate-speech or journalistic satire (al la Je suis Charlie)? Surely it is sometimes more moral to disobey a law than to obey it? Does ‘tolerating’ Adam Walker’s membership of the racist British National Party, while serving as a secondary-school teacher, verify Marcuse’s thesis of ‘repressive tolerance’? And, thirdly, might teachers now be in danger of becoming advocates of awkward political assumptions, closer to patriotism than many would like, rather than engaging their students critically in what ought to be ‘valued’?

Gibson, H. (2016) 'Reconsidering British Values', paper presented to The 12th Annual Conference of the British Education Studies Association (BESA), 30 June-01 July, viewed 08 August 2020, <>