BRITISH VALUES: UNPACKING THE BABUSHKA DOLL

When my daughter was about five years old, she was given a babushka doll. It disappeared almost immediately into a box, where it remained until we came across it years later when she was packing away her childhood. With a slight shudder, she dropped it into the nearest charity bag. Apparently, she had found the face scary and the idea of things existing inside other things even scarier, so she had never played with it and she was relieved to see it go. And so it is with British values: scary on the face of it, even scarier when you unpack it, and we would all be glad to see them go.

As I outlined in my previous blog, British values as a concept is nothing new. According to the Prime Minister, they are, after all, as solid and reliable as fish and chips and the Union flag. The problem with the shiny new version is that it’s not really about its face at all; it’s about social revolution playing dress up; about things hiding inside other things.

Let’s begin with the face of it – democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. So far, so good. Democracy is a human construct and so not a Christian value, but Romans 13:1 says: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established’. Titus 3:1 reminds us to ‘be subject to rulers and powers, to be obedient’ and 1 Peter 2:13-14 says we should ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors’, so it’s clear that we should support our democratically elected leaders and the institutions of the country.

Nor would people of faith argue against individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. The problem is, the respect and tolerance is anything but mutual. It’s rapidly becoming a one way street as Ofsted seeks to impose its monoculture. I have also written this week about Ofsted’s bullying of independent Orthodox Jewish schools in the cause of preparing children for life in modern Britain. Ofsted is extending its reach way beyond schools and into the social fabric of any communities which don’t comply. It’s social revolution – the reshaping of society by imposition from a government body. Not much liberty there then, and the face of British values is, on reflection, pretty scary.

So what’s inside the British values babushka doll? Let’s start with faith schools. There have been various calls for faith to be removed from our schools altogether – the Green Party has made it a point in its manifesto. It’s completely unworkable, of course, both because no government could afford to pick up the resulting bill, and also because no government is foolish enough to remove something that parents consistently want. So the new tack is to dilute the ethos by meddling with admissions procedures. Once the anti-faith school population reaches a critical mass, parents will start vetoing the faith content, leaving just the excellent education on offer. New thinking: don’t openly impose the monoculture, do it by stealth using secular parents.

Next layer: last autumn saw a new obsession with homophobic bullying, with LGBT rights becoming a British value.  Without any thought for what happens when the imposition of a view about one protected characteristic comes into direct conflict with another, Ofsted went off on their infamous hunt to root out homophobia. When faith schools pointed out that they didn’t have to teach anything that conflicted with their conscience and also that parental opt out meant that children in some schools weren’t being taught about LGBT issues, Ofsted found another way around the issue. They simply made the existence of homophobic bullying (although not initially of race, of the disabled or people of faith) a safeguarding issue. So now, whether or not the school teaches an SRE programme which includes LGBT, they fail on safeguarding. Law protecting conscience nil, Ofsted one.

The CHIPS programme which is currently being implemented in more than 90 schools around the country also takes a clever new route into the classroom. The programme is cross-curricular and centred on literacy and music, so there is no parental opt out.  Like British values, the programme has been around for several years without attracting much attention. Now suddenly it is becoming de rigueur as the LGBT lobby group seizes the opportunity for Ofsted to affirm its ideology.

The final, and scariest layer, is extremism. The careful placement of ‘neo-Nazi’  and ‘ISIS’ in speeches plays very effectively on public fear, allowing the government to implement measures such as the Prevent strategy that gain wide support, despite being itself extreme in its reach. Just as the last Parliament was dissolved, Home Secretary Theresa May delivered one such speech. The word ‘strong’ figured regularly, together with the aggressive rhetoric of victory through conflict. She also outlined the plan for ‘a step change in the way we help people to learn the English language. There will be new incentives and penalties, a sharp reduction in funding for translation services, and a significant increase in the funding available for English language training.’ Inspections of Orthodox Jewish schools in the last few weeks have borne out this newest British value – imposition of the English language is the latest way to reach into communities that don’t conform.

So, there’s the British values babushka doll. There are almost certainly more layers yet to be carved. The supreme irony is that the government is becoming exactly what it is trying to oppose – an extremist group which seeks to impose its singular ideology.

BRITISH VALUES: EXAMINING THE VACUUM

Horror vacui postulated Aristotle. Nature abhors a vacuum, so denser surrounding material moves in to fill the void. And so it is with British values – the vacuum created by Nicky Morgan et al who lobbed the issue into schools, left it to define itself, then used no-notice inspections to tear into anyone who didn’t guess the correct definition. Not necessarily the best method for constructing cohesive policy.

British values are nothing new. They emerged in 2007; a government response to a country splintering into subgroups based on ethnicity and, therefore, religion and belief. Remember community cohesion? At the time, the school in which I was teaching was marked down by Ofsted because the pupils were all white and apparently middle class. The Chair of Governors proposed (quite seriously) hiring coaches to take our pupils to a deprived area of a city inhabited by immigrant communities. He appeared hurt when I suggested that this was more than a little recidivist; redolent of paying to view the inmates at Bedlam or the foundlings at Coram. We left that practice behind with the eighteenth century.

We were annoyed at the injustice done by Ofsted, but we fruitlessly argued our case, then moved on. Expectations seemed so much clearer; everyone was so much more civilised when discussing the issues involved. So what happened in the intervening eight years? The ideology of liberal secularism gained ground. Religion came to be seen as an outdated, often toxic, creed with a resulting move against faith in our schools and in the public square. Marriage was peremptorily redefined, causing a significant shift in social orthodoxy, and after 9/11 the world seemed a much more dangerous place.

In July 2014, Nicky Morgan replaced Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education. She was already Minister for Women, and these two roles were combined with Equalities Minister. Within days, she appointed Stonewall’s former head of education as her special adviser. Hiding behind a knee-jerk response to Trojan Horse, she rushed legislation through requiring all schools to actively promote protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 – an action which she herself now describes as ‘a dramatic change in education policy’ and an action for which the DfE was criticised by the Commons Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, for failing to facilitate adequate consultation. But the DfE went ahead anyway. All the ingredients of a perfect storm combined.

The resulting actions of Ofsted, together with their own admission that the reliability of their inspections is questionable, are now well documented.  As Ofsted inspects itself, it’s impossible to hold it to account. But two things seem to have eluded Nicky Morgan in her frenzied drive to prepare children for life in modern Britain. One is that, however much she likes to make it all ‘a matter for Ofsted’ she herself created the hierarchy of protected characteristics which sent Ofsted off on its hunt for homophobia in faith schools. The other is the wilful misinterpretation of ‘active promotion’.

Although the requirement is to actively promote respect for people, Ofsted is inspecting the promotion of respect for belief itself.  As Fiona Bruce MP said in a commons debate: ‘It is entirely right that we should respect other people, including those with other beliefs, and to respect their right to hold those beliefs, but this is being conflated with a requirement to respect all other beliefs, which is quite a different thing altogether. I respect Scientologists, but I do not respect Scientology. This confusion is very real. It appears in inspectors’ minds. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, wrote of schools teaching “respect for…various faiths”, making no distinction between the believers and the beliefs’.

Ms Morgan continues to prove ‘unwilling to “lay down rules” about how the requirement was to be interpreted’. She suggests instead that Heads might like to consult their governors, neatly overlooking the fact that Trojan Horse was itself caused by poor governance going unchecked. So, in addition to Ofsted’s chosen interpretation of British values, here are a range of other definitions:-

  • David Cameron: as British as the Union flag, as football, as fish and chips.
  • Nicky Morgan: It’s about that shared history or heritage.
  • David Starkey: queuing, drunkenness, nostalgia, loving pets, self-loathing, wit and eccentricity.
  • Tristram Hunt: more than pictures of the Queen and double decker buses … Nicky Morgan clearly does not believe that LGBT rights are British values. They are.
  • Nick Clegg: moderate Muslims in Britain are key to safe and happy communities.
  • Theresa May: not calling for a flag to be flown from every building, or demanding that everyone drinks Yorkshire Tea and watches Coronation Street [but] the means by which we have made our multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society succeed.

No clarity there, then, in the warm fuddle of jingoism, cultural history and opportunistic identity politics.  Perhaps the clearest definition comes from a Spectator blog suggesting that rather than over-egg our Britishness, we should school our young people in the creed that unites the West. And that creed is not liberal democracy, but ‘secular humanism, which is more basic, more concerned with moral vision … the public ideology of the West is secular in a neutral sense’. People of faith, apparently, just have to suck it up.

Which all leads back to Sir Edward Leigh’s contribution to a recent Parliamentary debate.  ‘Ofsted’, he suggested, ‘seems to be guilty of trying to enforce a kind of state imposed orthodoxy … a stultifying conformist ideology that is enforced on all people at all times’. It has filled the vacuum; British values can be whatever the DfE and Oftsed want to define them as being.

Where does this leave Christians? With the government, as Sir Edward says, ‘happy for people to be slightly Christian, slightly Jewish or slightly Muslim, so long as that is just a pretty façade for agreeing and conforming with an unforgivingly liberal ideology’. The future for those who want to live out their faith in all aspects of their being remains an open question.

 

Next week: British values: unpacking the babushka doll

 

MORE THAN A NUMBER IN THE DfE BOOK

Until 1999, when you went to school, you were a person; you had a name. After 1999, you were a number – a unique pupil number (UPN) admittedly, but a number nevertheless. The purpose of said number was to facilitate data transfer between schools so that pupils could be tracked. But it was also a tool for raising standards: Local Authorities access the data for target setting and monitoring, and central government uses it to evaluate and monitor policy. I was told once, when working with a DfE Primary Strategy Team, that modelling allows analysts to project GCSE outcomes from early years data with reasonable accuracy, and also to predict probable A level and Higher Education potential.

So far, so good. Until, that is, we inhabit not just a culture of measurement which subjects children to a relentless testing regime, but also a system which has annexed education to the singular purpose of economic growth. The latest plan, whether or not it is best for the child, is to encourage parents to put children in school nurseries shortly after their second birthday to get them ‘school ready’. Tony Blair’s administration is responsible for starting this, with his view that ‘education is the best economic policy there is’. What he started, the current government is continuing, with unadulterated enthusiasm.  Everything, but everything, is servant to the economy, as beleaguered teachers stand by their corporate conveyor belts awaiting performance related pay judgments.

Take character education – when it first entered the arena, many of us breathed a sigh of relief that common sense was finally starting to prevail; that policy makers were showing some realisation that pupils are people not production units, and that schools are communities, not exam factories. The relief was short lived. Extolling the virtue of hard work, the DfE declared that: ‘Knuckling down and succeeding in school puts an average of £140,000 in a young person’s back pocket’.  One of the schools in receipt of a Character Award was recognised for the improvement of its pupils’ job prospects through developing ‘resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness, reciprocity and respect’. At the award ceremony, Nicky Morgan finally came out with the unambiguous statement: ‘Character building remained a priority for the government … This is all about building a strong economy.’  So not about building better people for the common good, then.

The Prime Minister joined in, too, telling the Institute of Directors that ‘children need to know how money is made and to turn a profit’. Addressing BETT, the education technology show, in January, Ms Morgan sang the praises of a future technology that could ‘link qualifications to tax data, in order to demonstrate the true worth of certain subjects’. Conclusion: money making subjects worthy, all other subjects worthless (and as someone with an apparently worthless arts degree, this one made me cross. Very cross). She’s already well on the way to achieving her aim, as she used the data from a commissioned report on ‘the earnings and employment returns to A levels’ to issue a press release announcing that ‘Science and maths send girls’ future wages soaring’. Note the emotive language. Boys not included.

You might, like me, think that at least pupil premium was about enabling and enriching the lives of disadvantaged children. How naive could I be?  David Laws was happy to demonstrate that participation in arts or sports can put a pupil two months ahead in the three Rs. And the value of a school trip? A three month boost to academic performance: enrichment and joy value unknown.  But here’s the real kick – £200 per disadvantaged student per year could raise achievement by five PISA points.  The only problem is, education should be about peoples’ lives, not a vanity project rating for the government.

Contrast this with a Christian perspective. The Bible says that we are created in the image of God; we are unique in his creation. Psalm 139:14 tells us that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. Anyone who works with children and young people knows this. They are funny, quirky, smart, curious and above all, individually and uniquely human. Each one is different. Each one is special. Education, if it is about anything, should be about nurturing each and every person; about helping  them to flourish; about contributing to the common good. That involves academic learning, character building, social development and the modelling of values. It involves playing a part in their preparation for adult life. If we get that right, fulfilment of potential will follow.

So, do we want to enter each unique pupil number on the DfE spreadsheet that measures value only in economic worth? Or do we want to nurture each unique, special person, regardless of their future economic value?