Forcing schools to teach certain views is alien to liberal tradition

Is there any phrase more sinister and pernicious than the oxymoronic ‘British values’? It’s one of those things you hear on the radio after arriving back from a relaxing holiday in a warm country that just makes your heart sink at being home.

It has become popular since the ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ scandal in Birmingham in which a number of individuals attempted to introduce a hardline strain of Islam into some schools; since then, under first Michael Gove and now Nicky Morgan, the Department for Education has made installing “British values” a neccessary requirement for all schools.

Even at the time this phrase was rolled out it was so obvious that, despite the problem of extremism being limited to Islam and the schools in question not even being “faith schools”, the Department would subsequently target Church schools. And so it has transpired.

The “British values” promoted by the state are almost as alien to my grandparents’ generation as the Islam being promoted in Birmingham schools. As Christopher Caldwell once pointed out, “What secular Europeans call ‘Islam’ is a set of values that Dante and Erasmus would recognise as theirs” but the modern “core European values” would “leave Dante and Erasmus bewildered”.

In a speech to think tank Politeia last week, education secretary Nicky Morgan summed it up:

I’m afraid I have no sympathy for those who say that British values need not apply to them, that this should purely be a special test for schools in predominantly Muslim communities or our inner cities.

Every school regardless, faith or none – should be promoting British values, because it’s the right thing to do. A commitment to British values means that we also hold to account those schools where girls are made to sit at the back of the class, where homophobia goes unchecked, where young people aren’t being made aware of the many facets of British culture.

Pupils in a Lincolnshire school might not have any friends from an ethnic minority in their village – but surely we don’t expect those students never to leave Lincolnshire’s borders? Surely a key part of our responsibility to those young people in enabling them to succeed in modern Britain is ensuring they understand and respect the differences that make our country unique.

So I’m unapologetic in saying that no school should be exempt from promoting fundamental British values, just as no school should be exempt from promoting rigorous academic standards.

The education secretary was referring to high–performing Middle Rasen Primary School in Lincolnshire, which missed out on Ofsted’s top grade because pupils lacked “first–hand experience of the diverse make–up of modern British society”. It lamented that the children missed out on the “cultural diversity of modern British society” and lack “first–hand interaction with counterparts from different backgrounds”.

The idea that children growing up in rural Lincolnshire are somehow being taught “un-British values” because their parents are mostly English is so bizarre and counter-factual only a government department could come up with it. Likewise a set of national “values” is inevitably going to reflect the rather narrow view point of the political-media-academia complex – “BBC Values” would be a more accurate description.

As I wrote a couple of years back: “Discomfort with religion has led to increasing calls for greater French-style laicite, in particular in the area of faith schools, but while this is often framed in terms of opposition to all religious conservatism, countering Muslim separatism is clearly the most urgent motive. Writing in the Independent Christina Patterson suggested that “a properly civilised society would accept that while lovely little C of E schools were once an excellent place for children to learn about the religion that shaped their culture, art and laws, you can’t have them without having the madrassa run by the mad mullah next door, and therefore, sadly, you can’t have either”. Church schools are a good thing, but diversity requires state-enforced uniformity. A Catholic or Anglican might ask why they should have to sacrifice their schools, among the most successful in the country, because of another religion – this was not part of the terms and conditions of mass immigration.”

For some people in power, I get the impression, the attraction of “diversity” is that it means all religion must be regulated and, to a certain extent, suppressed. Already this has happened with charities, with the long and informal relationship between (mostly Anglican) Christian charities and the authorities replaced with a far more stringent and intrusive system. A small number of Islamic charities have been linked to terrorism… and so all charity must be heavily regulated by the state. The same things hold true with schools.

As Saul Bellow once wrote, when “public virtue is a kind of ghost town… anyone can move and declare himself sheriff”.

But it’s nonetheless disappointing to find a Conservative minister talking like Morgan does, and whatever Michael Gove’s achievements in Government, he was the one most behind this whole British Values malarkey. The paradox with British Values is that traditionally one of the great strengths of British life was that people were free to have whatever values they liked without fear of losing their jobs, being questioned by police for hate crimes, or having their kids indoctrinated at school. I tend to suspect that the best way we could encourage British Values would be to simply offer all parents a voucher for their children, allow all schools to go private and abolish Ofsted.