The Problem With ‘Fundamental British Values’

In 2014, Britain’s schools were hit by the so called “Trojan Horse” Scandal: the rumour that Islamic extremists had infiltrated multiple schools in Birmingham and were teaching children to betray Britain by putting the milk in first when making tea and/or escaping to join ISIS, a rumour that launched a spate of Ofsted inspections and official investigations which all turned up exactly zero evidence.

The then-education secretary Michael Gove responded by including the terminology ‘Must not undermine Fundamental British Values’ in the Teacher’s Standards, a largely anodyne guidebook that all teachers in Britain must adhere to. 

Since then, as the othering of muslim Britons has stepped up a gear, the terminology has changed to ‘Must actively promote Fundamental British Values’- all without a proper debate in parliament or even in public of what exactly “Fundamental British Values” are, who chose them, what makes them so fundamental, and why on earth every teacher is now required to dress only in Sub Fusc and keep a kettle perpetually boiling at the front of every classroom.

You, as a teacher, have the next generation in the palm of your hand; they are obliged to attend and listen to you for five days per week for almost the entirety of the year for multiple years and then, when you’re done, they go and join society.

As such, Empire and Capital have a vested interest in providing learners with the tools and frameworks necessary to think in exactly the way that is most beneficial to the current system.

Fundamental British Values were not invented by Gove alone, nor even by Cameron or Brown or Blair. To effectively understand and contextualise the brain rot at the heart of the exercise, we must go back to the true heyday of the idea of Britishness as ephemeral and aspirational, the days of the Empire.

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Part I: Time Immemorial to 2001

In the late 19th to early 20th centuries, most schools used textbooks that implied a definition for Britishness as this ethereal combination of Democracy and Fairness, Christianity and the Anglo-Saxon White Race. Of course, ‘Britishness’ in these contexts was ascribed to the whole empire, and it wasn’t necessarily just Englishness, though the inclusion of ‘Christianity’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ meant that full Britishness was rarely ascribed to the imperial subjects, who were thought of mostly as savages. 

The inclusion of Christianity as a marker meant that the push to re-examine the concept of Britishness came from secular atheist groups within London society. The Moral Instruction League (1897-1919) was a pressure group that argued for over 20 years that resting citizenship and Britishness on Christian foundations was fundamentally nonsense in a society as diverse as ours. 

F.J. Gould (1855-1938) was a league activist who wrote the ‘Children’s book of moral lessons’, which contained a number of ready-to-teach lessons on themes such as ‘Democracy’ and ‘Fairness’. These lessons were incredibly progressive for their time, some advocating for better wages and living conditions for the poor, and the participation of all in the democratic process. One particular lesson stated that people of all faiths should be saluted alongside Christians- this one in particular was vilified in the national press.

This internal conflict on the nature of Britishness faded from common parlance, but continued to bubble away under the surface until, in the halcyon days of 2001, A report commissioned by the New Labour government on the future of multi-ethnic Britain argued that ‘Britain needs common values to hold it together and give it a sense of cohesion’. 

And, like a great beast rising from the depths, we are regrettably Back At It Again.

Part II: The Doctrine of State Multiculturalism

Tony Blair’s particular concern was that, on national censuses, Citizens of each of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom were more likely to identify with citizenship of that specific nation than as citizens of ‘Britain’. 

The creation of a coalesced set of values for British society, therefore, emerged from a concerted effort to define a “British identity” representative of ‘a multicultural state composed of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and also a multicultural society… made up of a diverse range of cultures and identities’

For the then-government, a British identity required commitment to British values. In a Home Office report in 2004 it was argued that “To be British mean[s] that we respect the laws, the parliamentary and democratic political structures, traditional values of mutual tolerance, respect for equal rights”. 

At the time, this meant nothing to anyone. It was, at best, an attempt at winning votes by appealing to an ephemeral sense of kinship between British citizens that failed because such a concept is entirely laughable. But, as the Obama Administration discovered in early 2017, if you create a tool for the state to use it does not disappear when your administration leaves power. Tony Blair’s naive attempt to create a shared identity of Britishness created a precedent for assimilationist thinking in regards to ‘Britishness’, and when New Labour finally left power in 2010, this tool was handed directly over to David Cameron.

On the 11th of February 2011, at a European security conference in Munich, Then-prime minister Cameron gave a speech where, in the space of about 150 words, he moved smoothly from talking about Multiculturalism to Race, Islam, and, finally, Extremism. This game of word association represented the change in discourse at the time, where the New Labourite concern about a lack of a shared British identity across the four nations was being replaced by concern about minority ethnic communities ‘not integrating’.

“In the UK, some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practiced at home by their parents, whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries. But these young men also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values

  • David Cameron, 2011

Clearly and openly targeting his remarks at Muslim youth, Cameron nevertheless did not qualify these statements in any way, rather just appealing directly to the us-vs-them dichotomy that Blair’s concept of british identity as “a multicultural society… made up of a diverse range of cultures and identities” left wide-open space for. Mr Cameron continued:

“Do they [Muslims] believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separation? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask.”

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“If British values are set up in opposition to minority ethnic cultures, this inevitably leads to a backlash against minority ethnic cultures”- Professor Anne Phillips (2010)

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Part III: The unsaid, but extremely well-telegraphed, Other

This brings us neatly to mid-2011, when Britain finally codified a definition of Fundamental British Values within their Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development strategies. 

Their values were;

  • Democracy
  • The Rule of Law
  • Individual Liberty
  • Mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those of different faiths and beliefs

The requirement that teachers should “not undermine fundamental British values” in the context of education raises some real questions about the relationship between the profession and the state. The inclusion of that exact phrasing within a statutory document regulating the profession is de facto a politicisation of the role of teachers. It is now mandated that teachers act as instruments of state surveillance via PREVENT and propaganda via FBV (Fundamental British Values).

The real nucleation point was 2014, where, in addition to the ‘trojan horse’ scandal mentioned above, came the media circus surrounding Mohammed Emwazi (‘Jihadi John’), the Islamic state executioner. His former headteacher was asked to make a statement about his time at the school, helping to instill a belief in the public that schools and teachers were accountable for, or at least a factor in, the actions of the young people that fled to join ISIS. 

The secretary of state for education at the time, semi-evolved amphibian Michael Gove, stated that the Teachers’ standards were to be used not only by teachers to guide their classroom conduct, but by headteachers for performance management and induction. 

This step-up in the ubiquity of the Standards came paired with the Ofsted school inspection handbook now stating that school leaders are required to ACTIVELY PROMOTE FBVs rather than just ‘not undermine’ them.

Clearly, in the Government’s eye, the role of the teacher in regards to counterterrorism changed in 2015. But it was a soft change, a two-word change in language in one formal document that carried with it an implicit assumption that new and established teachers would simply know how to promote Fundamental British Values and would be able to relate them to children without seeming like indoctrination or jingoism. No formal training was given.

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“Current policy seeks not only to eradicate signs of racial and cultural difference, but actually undermines teachers’ ability to engage critically with the process” – Dr Sally Elton-Chalcraft (2016) 

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Part IV: As Above, So Below

Speaking from personal experience, New trainees receive no formal instruction on FBV during their training year, and established practitioners received no CPD (Continuing Professional Development, postgraduate training given to teachers). There was one online questionnaire on PREVENT that gave you a certificate to print, but it was woefully inadequate.
New teachers are, therefore, completely unprepared to engage critically with issues of race, identity, or Britishness, and as such tend to swallow hook line and sinker the idea that Britishness is so narrowly defined by the adoption of, or deference to, certain symbols. Adoption of these ideals displays cohesion- not adopting them is a cause for concern. 

This is a model of Britishness that is actively fearful of alternative ideas or identities. It is under siege, unsure of itself, and it is this model that informs the approach of PREVENT towards counterterrorism in the classroom, informs the teaching of Britishness. In the eyes of this model, if you aren’t acting British, you’re a problem. And they get to define what ‘acting British’ is. 

The requirement in the Teachers’ Standards for teachers to ‘not undermine fundamental British values’ means that teachers must engage with Britishness within a particular professional and political landscape and that the nature of the standards themselves contextualise this landscape. Teaching in the UK today requires not just a time and professional commitment, but a level of moral complicity. The modern Standards mandate a value set, collapsing the distinction between professional and personal conduct and morality, and insisting on homogeneity not only in teacher practice, but in their values as well.

The combination of a public discourse on Britishness that is belligerent, backward looking and fearful, with the introduction of standards for teachers that are explicitly assimilationist and prescriptivist creates an environment where teacher opposition to the model of Britishness implied in the standards could compromise them professionally.

I wear a white poppy during the season, and genuine arguments have been passionately presented to me at one of the schools I trained at that it was a breach of my statutory requirements to promote British values to not wear a red poppy. A practitioner who has had negative experiences with members of law enforcement mentioning these experiences is legitimately doing something that might compromise them professionally. 

Is there any path back? Is the policing of identity and values for students and teachers alike so far beyond the pale that we cannot conceivably end it? Much alike to the difficulty of imagining the end of capitalism, the Teachers’ Standards and FBV are so fundamentally woven into classroom practice and professional peer assessment that it is difficult to imagine a pedagogical career without them. But such thinking is circular; as socialists we must imagine ways in which we can combat these systems and constructs. 

Teachers, both new and established, must be taught to critically engage with Fundamental British Values, to allow us to take control of the apparatus of the profession and steer it towards justice. The solution for the ailing educational system… is education.

Devon R. is a British teacher, commentator and writer, they can be found on twitter @Devon_OnEarth

Contributing articles:

Elton‐Chalcraft, S., Lander, V., Revell, L., Warner, D. and Whitworth, L., 2017. To promote, or not to promote fundamental British values? Teachers’ standards, diversity and teacher education. British Educational Research Journal, 43(1), pp.29-48.

Farrell, F., 2016. ‘Why all of a sudden do we need to teach fundamental British values?’A critical investigation of religious education student teacher positioning within a policy discourse of discipline and control. Journal of Education for teaching, 42(3), pp.280-297.

Maylor, U., 2016. ‘I’d worry about how to teach it’: British values in English classrooms. Journal of Education for Teaching, 42(3), pp.314-328.

Smith, H.J., 2016. Britishness as racist nativism: A case of the unnamed ‘other’. Journal of Education for Teaching, 42(3), pp.298-313.