January 29th 2015
I attended a conference today in East London on British Values. It was organised by Brighton College for the 100 Club which is the top 100 state and independent schools and Townley, it appears, is a member. But that's not the point of this blog.
British Values has become an issue for schools since recent changes to Ofsted required schools to promote and uphold British Values and Ofsted intends to inspect on this. The values they have identified are "democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs" .You will be aware of the Trojan Horse affair and now the Paris terror attacks which have thrown the powers that be into a panic. A picture is presented that young people are being manipulated by extremists in schools and the Education Secretary is making countering extremism a priority for schools. Presumably above educational priorities.
The problem arises in understanding British values and how to embed them in schools. Hence the conference. The two key speakers were Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, and Professor David Starkey, the well-known and outspoken historian. Ms Chakrabarti very helpfully identified three fundamental human values; dignity, equality and fairness.
Dignity means that all life is precious and so the end can never justify the means. It reminded me of the distaste I felt seeing Americans celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden. "Any man's death diminishes me.." John Donne.
Fairness means due process, fair trials. It is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta this year where such principles were first enshrined. This landmark contract between people and state is against arbitrary detention such as had been justified under terror laws and supports the presumption of innocence. But free speech was never part of the Magna Carta. It has evolved as our nation has. According to Shami we have the right to offend as with Charlie Hebdo in Paris but this is not a duty, we can and should exercise restraint and sensitivity.
Equality is the final and key value. It does not mean everyone being the same but rather equal treatment under the law. Therefore non-discrimination, treat others like you would wish to be treated. It requires that most important of human qualities, empathy. As individuals we can easily support the concept of our human rights or of our friends and family but the challenge is to expect the same for others. She notes that tolerance should not simply be for different faiths but other defined characteristics such as sexuality.
According to Shami cultural diversity and religious tolerance is embedded in British history but Professor David Starkey takes a slightly different perspective. According to the eminent historian it is in religious history in England that we see British values. The movement against religious dogma through the reformation and beyond, alongside the struggle for religious freedom, characterises this nation apart from others. It is here that freedom of speech takes centre stage.
Inevitably in a multicultural society with numerous beliefs there will be a clash of values and British history is the story of how we arbitrate that clash. This idea then comes round to the point made by Shami Chakrabarti, that schools are places for the contest of ideas. Where opinions and viewpoints can be tested and challenged and we can learn to "rub along together" while holding differing views.
It might seem that the values expressed as British values are in fact universal but the reality is that they are not. Britain is unique in its history and it is that history that has shaped our values and is shaping them still. This is why the study of History and Religious Education are so important. It was in 1948 that Religious Instruction (as it was then called) was made compulsory. After the horror of the war and the realisation of the Holocaust, British politicians wanted to ensure there were safeguards against such extremes. They felt the teaching of religious values, at the time Christian values, was one way to achieve this. It is ironic that now it is the religious values that are the extremes we are supposedly safeguarding against. But the fear is the same. That some ideas are so dangerous and can lead to such evil when manipulated that the only defence is education, a light to drive out darkness.
It is interesting that it was also after the Second World War that Churchill and English conservative lawyers drafted a European Convention on human rights. The same rights we take now to be universal.
The present Government's response to the actions of extremists is also turning to education although at the same time trying to "opt out" of that human rights convention. We have avoided extremism in Britain because we have allowed and at times embraced dissent. Yet schools are practically being required to "root out" dissent. Treating young people as a potential threat is not a fundamental British value. Our rights are not supported by restricting the rights of others.
As I heard the concerns and difficulties faced by Headteachers from some of the country's top schools I felt a quiet pride in our school. I recalled the lively but respectful debates at our regular Question Time where that "clash of values" is arbitrated by intelligent and articulate young people. As I listened to Shami Chakrabarti I saw so many of our students who show a concern for a better society and the ambition to achieve it. It is through education and a safe place to challenge ideas that we truly counter extremism.
Townley students will continue to contest their ideas in a safe and supportive environment and while we are prepared to challenge one another's ideas we have nothing to fear from extremism.
Link to the Telegraph article -