So, hands up everyone who remembers The Big Society. It was Dave’s 2009 blue skies thinking idea for the brave new world of his post-election Britain. Underpinned by its philosophy of autonomy and sense of social purpose, he rode the crest of a wave. Has he shaped a socially creative society?
Well, judge for yourselves from the Prime Minister’s new year message for 2015. He says nothing about the morality or humanity of a burgeoning social capital. At the start of a year when he has to go to the polls, the message is almost exclusively about money in people’s pockets, complete with behaviourist overtones of reward (although, notice, no mention of punishment, the flipside of the reward coin). It’s a simple equation. Work hard. We will reward you. Money not morality.
But embedded in the message is one brief phrase, breath taking in its arrogance and its damning assumption about our current culture: ‘we are changing the values of our country’. From Big Society to Big Brother. From autonomy to control. Because any administration which thinks that it can change the values of the society which it governs is one which fails to understand freedom, individuality, diversity and its moral responsibility.
Now, I know that the word ‘values’ had to be in there somewhere because that’s the current mantra. But here’s what Mahatma Ghandi had to say about values:
‘Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values.’
So it follows that if you plan to change a nation’s values to those you find acceptable, you are also planning to control what each individual within that nation believes, says, does and thinks. And that has really serious implications for the world of education; a world which is increasingly seeing the DfE and Ofsted acting as the Thought Police. The promise of decentralised power echoes falsely in the most regulated, inspected and controlled education service that we have ever experienced.
So are we, as teachers, to emulate the government and change the values of those we teach? I have never regarded that as my role. I teach children how to think, not what to think. Our individual values are a very personal outcome of what we believe, shaped by everything we have ever seen, heard and experienced. So classrooms are ideal places not just for pupils to reflect on their own values but also to consider those values in the light of what others believe. Classrooms are not, and never should be, places where a centralised (British) values system is imposed.
So I guess that social capital or the social creativity of the modern Britain for which we are preparing the next generation won’t be playing any part in the election debate. It looks like it will centre on British values. And it also looks as though economic growth is set to become the new black of our nation’s value system.
Writing in Idea magazine recently, Dave Landrum, the director of advocacy for the Evangelical Alliance, posed these questions about our identity: ‘… what’s at the irreducible core? Who are we when everything else is stripped away?’ The national identity which shapes our society is undergoing structural changes that will resonate far beyond the summer election and we need to be part of that debate. We need to encourage our students to be part of the debate.
And above all, we need to ensure that there is a debate, one which secures a society that recognises diversity of values, faiths and beliefs. Only then can we claim that we have created the Big Society. That still matters to me, even if, in its origins, it was only a convenient political rhetoric for an upcoming election.