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 Religion came to be seen as an outdated, often toxic, creed with a resulting move against faith in our schools and in the public square.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