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18 December 2014

Schools and British values

During the summer the Department for Education reacted to the 'Trojan Horse' 'radicalisation' scandal in Birmingham by producing proposals to revise school inspection requirements. Despite the Evangelical Alliance and others writing to Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, expressing concern about implications of the proposals, the Ofsted School inspection handbook for inspecting schools in England under section 5 of the Education Act 2005 (as amended by the Education Act 2011) retains some potentially worrying instructions.

In particular:

"Inspectors should consider how well leadership and management ensure that the curriculum:

  • actively promotes the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs
  • promotes tolerance of and respect for people of all faiths (or those of no faith), cultures and lifestyles through the effective spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils, including through the extent to which schools engage their pupils in extra-curricular activity and volunteering within their local community."

"Inspectors must also evaluate the effectiveness and impact of the provision for pupils' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development … The social development of pupils is shown by their:

  • acceptance and engagement with the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs;the pupils develop and demonstrate skills and attitudes that will allow them to participate fully in and contribute positively to life in modern Britain."

While recognising the importance of traditional values such as respect and tolerance, the Alliance nevertheless expressed concern to the Secretary of State (in a letter on 31 July 2014) with regard to those aspects of the inspection guidance "relating to spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of students and in particular to the proposal that all schools must 'actively promote' British values – which are deemed to be represented by the Equality Act." The Alliance continued:

"As you are aware, such values are deeply contested  not least by the Christian faith community - which above all else has made a vast and positive contribution to our sense of national identity and our values.

Along with many others, we believe it is not appropriate to respond to political extremism in certain Birmingham schools by imposing across the board secularist politically correct 'values' which schools, teachers, parents and pupils are required to 'actively promote' – whether they believe them to be right or wrong. We also believe that forcing schools to 'actively promote' what could often be mutually exclusive perspectives may prove to be a recipe for confusion and conflict.

Our contention is that it is counterproductive to national identity and social cohesion to seek to compel people to promote views and lifestyles that they fundamentally disagree with. Indeed, such coercion may well cause confusion and conflict within school communities, with staff, school staff, teachers, parents and pupils at odds about each other's values if they happen to coincide with or diverge from what the government dictate. 'True British values' certainly cannot be reduced to those represented by a secularist politically correct equality agenda, and the enforcement of such agenda on all schools is the wrong response to the challenges presented by parts of the Birmingham education system."

In September and October, Ofsted found that 11 schools "were not preparing pupils for life in Britain today". Ten of those schools were downgraded. Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw said inspectors had either found evidence that the 11 schools were not teaching pupils respect for the mix of faiths in Britain today, or were not adequately developing pupils' awareness of communities different to their own. One Roman Catholic school was even accused of not warning its pupils sufficiently of the 'dangers of radicalisation'. Six of the 11 schools that Ofsted said were not preparing children for life in Britain were primaries;the rest were secondaries. In the media there were reports of young children in faith based schools feeling "bullied" and "traumatised" by Ofsted inspectors' alleged intrusive and inappropriate questioning, allegations denied by Ofsted. Parents registered strong complaints to schools. Both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Education Service reacted with a series of strong criticisms of Ofsted's reforms which have suddenly resulted in a number of their previously successful schools being downgraded for apparently 'failing to promote British values' and 'not preparing pupils for life in Britain today' – despite lack of evidence for this.

Speaking after the publication of Sir Michael's letter, Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, commenting that Ofsted's new focus on British values was causing chaos, said: "There is massive confusion in schools about what fundamental British values are. In these cases, where a school goes from good to inadequate, it seems to be a case of Ofsted moving the goalposts, and going in and causing headlines."

However, faced with a barrage of criticism and threats of judicial review based on human rights legislation, the Department for Education now appears to be heralding something of a retreat.

In its recent guidance to independent schools, academies and free schools entitled Improving the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of pupils, the Department for Education now advises schools that:

  • "It is not necessary for schools or individuals to 'promote' teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with their own, but nor is it acceptable for schools to promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background."

And in connection with requirements for a school to comply with the Equality Act 2010 the Department
now confirms that there is no intention to "discriminate against any religion or undermine religious freedoms". In particular:

  • "The standard does not mean, for example, that schools must promote alternative lifestyles or same sex marriage. Rather, it requires respect for other people, even if they choose to follow a lifestyle that one would not choose to follow oneself."

Similar guidance is provided in respect of "Promoting fundamental British values" in maintained schools.

It would seem that the schools are being advised to adopt one approach by the Department of Education and Ofsted is being told to follow another. No wonder there are accusations of incoherence and incompetence. Schools everywhere would be advised to seek clarification from Ofsted when the inspectors arrive to inquire whether or not they are aware of and are currently following the latest guidelines being forwarded to schools.

On the wider question, if there is a debate to be had about so-called 'British values', it certainly needs to be held on a broader base than the state simply deciding what they are and imposing them on schools. Christians in particular need more than ever before to know their rights and stand up for their beliefs in the face of what appear to be intimidatory and bullying tactics from extreme religious illiteracy and political correctness.