More than 37 headteachers and representatives of professional associations have signed an open letter to Justine Greening calling for a renewed commitment to the teaching of PSHE, Citizenship and Religion in post-Brexit Britain.

The letter to the Secretary of State for Education, dated Wednesday 27th July, points out that values education such as PSHE, Citizenship and Religion are already “increasingly being squeezed out” by time pressures for core academic subjects. The specialists in citizenship, religious education and philosophy of education warn of the dangers of some schools “misinterpreting the need to promote fundamental British values in ways which close down meaningful discussions.” David Lundie explains why the letter was needed

“Despair” – not a theme I was expecting from a conference ostensibly to discuss citizenship, RE, political and moral literacy in the aftermath of the referendum. Surprisingly, a common theme, both from practitioners and academics who gathered at short notice at Liverpool Hope University on 11th July. Despair – their own, the teachers they worked with, and young people’s – permeated those first few minutes, but didn’t linger long. It was a testament to the imaginative and moral resources these professionals brought to the table, from Citizenship, RE, PSHE and Philosophy, that we very quickly moved towards positive responses to the challenges that doubtless lie ahead.

Democratic education is a process, not a syllabus

This is the strength that “values education”, in its many and various forms, brings to schools. The space to ask challenging questions, and to acknowledge the uncomfortable answers, as well as the comfortable ones, and then to reflect, evaluate and move forward together. The teachers and academics who had gathered, concerned about the instability, xenophobia and hysteria that followed the referendum result, modelled this admirably. What came from the day’s deliberations were a number of important questions, some sharing of great ideas, and a genuine sense that now may be the time to effect policy change.

Focusing on the last of these, three important factors seem to have come together:

– A yearning for participatory democracy;

– A coming together of agendas in Citizenship, RE and PSHE;

– The toxifying of the British Values ‘brand’.

Taking each of these in turn, one of the strongest recommendations from the day was that democratic education is a process, not a syllabus. It is something in which young people participate, not something which is done ‘to’ them. One way of understanding the unexpected result of the referendum is as a yearning to be listened to, by people who increasingly feel disenchanted with establishment politics. More direct democracy in schools runs counter to the increasing corporatisation and prescriptive attainment targets that support it.

In the current environment, subjects like RE and PSHE, which enable local demographic concerns to be raised and engaged with, find themselves increasingly fragile, being squeezed out by demands for more EBacc subject time. There was a consensus that change needs to be embedded across the curriculum and culture of schools, and cannot be loaded onto any one subject. Already, Ofsted have commented on lack of Citizenship, RE and PSHE time as constituting a safeguarding concern in some schools – as students were not provided a space to address questions and problems related to life in modern Britain.

The massive political upheaval post-Brexit comes at a time when three commissioned reports have called for a revised settlement around teaching about religion and belief in schools, and four Parliamentary select committees have recommended compulsory PSHE. The 2016 CBI/Pearson Education and Skills survey shows that 58% of employers are unsatisfied with the levels of international and cultural awareness of young people, and while there are more examples of good practice than we could possibly name, it remains all too easy for school leaders to sacrifice good SMSC, RE, Citizenship and PSHE to the demands of SATS/EBacc targets.

One way of understanding the referendum is a yearning to be listened to, by people who feel disenchanted with establishment politics

Finally, the rhetoric around ‘fundamental British values’ may have been tarnished by the unprecedented outbreaks of xenophobia that followed the referendum result. While we were clear that schools have not contributed to this violence, and are a success story for multicultural Britain, some participants spoke of ‘British Values’ displays that could serve as UKIP recruitment campaigns – centred on the flag, the Queen, white, middle class and English stereotypes. As British values make their way into more and more legislation around schools – the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, the Prevent duty and the forthcoming Counter-Extremism Bill – there is a need to challenge these approaches that close down, rather than open up, meaningful discussions in the classroom. Some even questioned whether the terminology of ‘British’ values could be salvaged, not least given their exclusive applicability to schools in England.

As a result of our discussions, 37 academics, some representing major subject associations in RE, Citizenship and PSHE, have signed an open letter to the Secretary of State, reproduced below. In it, we call for a renewed and open conversation, listening to ‘experts’, but also to the voices of marginalised young people. We left the event encouraged by the many great ideas and examples we were able to share. A genuine journey from despair to Hope!

David Lundie is Senior Lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope University

An open letter to the Secretary of State for Education

Dear Ms Greening,

Following an urgent discussion of the implications that the referendum and subsequent xenophobic attacks have for moral and values education[1], we the undersigned call on the government to renew its commitment to community cohesion as an essential part of the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of all young people. Firstly, we note that schools have not contributed to the rise in racism, xenophobia and division in the UK, and we would point the Secretary of State to the many examples of good practice such as the ‘REsilience’ programme[2], which supported teachers in dealing with contentious issues in the classroom. We are aware that the ever-changing world throws up challenges and opportunities for young people, for which they need to learn how to manage risk, make informed choices, and know how to access help and participate in democracy at all levels.

Nonetheless, we acknowledge that the referendum has raised deep questions about identity and belonging for many young people, for which an increasingly narrow academic curriculum has left them ill-equipped. In addition to acquiring knowledge, young people need to successfully develop conflict resolution, decision making skills, self-regulation, self-respect, negotiation and respect for those with different beliefs and values. We join with the many voices from faith and political leaders in condemning the rise of xenophobic and racist attacks. Schools provide an important space for dialogue, where opinions can be expressed, respected and evaluated. While we are aware of the many pressing matters for your attention, we ask you to make time to listen to existing good practice in spiritual, moral, social and cultural education from the Religious Education, Citizenship and Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education professional communities. We call on government to enable teachers to continue the good work of asking challenging questions, acknowledging the discomforting nature of some of the answers, and promoting a vision of our young people as global and European citizens.

Now is the time to commit to a renewed conversation about our shared national values, ensuring that young people’s voices are heard. In particular, we are aware of the dangers of some schools misinterpreting the need to promote fundamental British values in ways which close down, rather than open up, meaningful discussions. Religious Education and Assemblies are often the areas of school life where local and community concerns can most effectively be addressed, but we also recognise the fragility of these areas of the curriculum, which are increasingly being squeezed out by time pressures for ‘core’ academic subjects. This space for learning and for dialogue needs to permeate the whole curriculum and culture of schools, and not be seen as the preserve of any one curriculum subject. We also stress the need for democratic, moral and citizenship education to be experiential, something in which students participate, and not something which is done ‘to’ them. We encourage school leaders to include both local and global perspectives across the curriculum and to draw hope from the continuing good practice of teachers in this area.

The area of values education has been the beneficiary of a number of positive European collaborations, shaped by consensus among teachers, academics and communities. These initiatives have helped practitioners in the UK evolve a sense of shared European identity, and go beyond access to funding sources. For example, the Council of Europe has developed policies and strategies for teaching about religious diversity, intercultural, citizenship and human rights education[3]. Only this month the Foundation for Peace launched a European Commission supported education tool ‘Extreme Dialogue’ to help schools to challenge extremism[4]. The OECD PISA assessment emphasises attitudes and values in addressing how we live together in its framework for Global Competence. We will always continue to seek out and develop these collaborations, and ask the government to seek assurances to enable continuing movement of young people and ideas.

We encourage the Department for Education to seek an inclusive conversation with young people, experts, practitioners and communities about the nature of British values and identity in the 21st century, seeking to include the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We note that reports from Westminster Faith Debates, the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life and the Faiths and Civil Society Unit have called for review, including a wider study of values, recommending that the boundaries between RE, Citizenship and SMSC should be explored, and ask you to support the work of the RE Council Commission[5] as they explore these timely questions. We also note the All Party Parliamentary Group on RE’s recommendation that the impact of the EBacc on GCSE RS be reconsidered. We also note that four Parliamentary select committees, the Children’s Commissioner, the Chief Medical Officer, the Association for Directors of Public Health, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, the Association of Independent Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards Chairs as well as the vast majority of children, teachers and parents support compulsory PSHE education and urge you to act on this advice as a means of ensuring that this is an entitlement for all children and young people.

We congratulate you on your appointment, and hope that this time of opportunity will provide much needed reflection on our shared human, global, British and local identities for your department, for schools and for all young people in the United Kingdom.

With our very best wishes,

Dr David Lundie, Senior Lecturer in Education, Liverpool Hope University

Dr Philip Bamber, Associate Director, UK Teacher Education for Equity and Sustainability Network

Julie McCann, School Improvement Officer and SAPERE trainer, School Improvement Liverpool.

Keziah Featherstone, Headteacher, Bridge Learning Campus, Bristol

Professor James Conroy, Vice-Principal, University of Glasgow; Chair, Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain

Professor Trevor Cooling, Canterbury Christ Church University, Chair, Religious Education Council of England and Wales

Edward Kessler MBE, Woolf Institute, Cambridge

Robert Campbell, Executive Principal, Impington Village College

Jamie Barry, Head Teacher, Parson Street Primary School, Bristol

Professor Robert Jackson, Emeritus Professor of Religions & Education, University of Warwick

Dr Alison Clark, Liverpool World Centre

Khalil Akbar, Education Consultant

Liam Collins, Headteacher Uplands Community College

Elizabeth Lewis, Development Manager, SAPERE

Dr Jeremy Cogley, Professional Tutor, Liverpool Hope University

Professor Linden West, Professor of Sociology, Canterbury Christ Church University

Dr David Lewin, Lecturer in Education, University of Strathclyde

Dr Emma Salter, Senior Lecturer, University of Huddersfield; Exec Member Association of University Lecturers in Religion and Education

Dr Jo Pearce, Lecturer in Religious Education, UCL Institute of Education, University College London

Professor Brian Gates, Emeritus Professor of Religion, Ethics and Education, University of Cumbria; Exec Member Association of Moral Education

Lisa Vickerage-Goddard, Lecturer in Religious Education (Secondary ITE) Newman University

Dr Paul Smalley, Senior Lecturer in Religious Education, Edge Hill University; Chair, National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education

Dr Alan Brine, Retired, former HMI Religious Education, Ofsted

Lucy Jones, Brothers of Charity

Professor Lystra Hagley-Dickinson, Head of Department of Social Sciences, University of St Mark and St John

Dr Ros Stuart-Buttle, Senior Lecturer in Theology and Education, Liverpool Hope University

Dr. Richard Davies, Lecturer in Education, Aberystwyth University

Lauren Shevlin MA, Key Stage Co-ordinator for RE

Professor Neil Ferguson, Professor of Political Psychology, Liverpool Hope University

Jan Gourd, Senior Lecturer in Education, University of St Mark and St John

Jane Yates, Armathwaite Community Primary School, Cumbria SACRE

Professor Tony Gallagher, Professor of Education, Queen’s University Belfast; Editor of Education, Citizenship and Social Justice

Jean-Louis Dutaut, Teacher of Citizenship and Politics, Southend High School for Girls

Matthew Dell MA, Head of Religious Education, St Peter’s Catholic School, Guildford

Martha Shaw, Senior Lecturer in Education, London South Bank University

Andrea Haith, Teacher of Religious Education

Iris Reynolds, Ss Peter and Paul Catholic Primary School, Wallasey