If we want to teach ‘British values’ then we need to do this….

How do we know what British values even are? And how should we teach them? Expert Matt Hood explores the answer.

Before you read on, open a browser and google ‘British values.’

After a couple of links to the department for education you will see link after link of different school websites where you’ll find the ‘copy and paste’ version of DfE British values guidance. It’s the online equivalent of posting a Beefeater at the school gates.

I’ve written before about how damaging the ‘stick it in the Ofsted framework’ strategy is and this exercise proves the point.

What has actually changed from values being added to the framework? Nothing. How much time has been wasted pretending to Ofsted that it has? Loads.

The underlying issue is important here. The radicalisation of young people is unacceptable but school leaders must think hard and resist the urge to simply react – or worse, overreact.

A rational response starts with four questions.

First, what are values? Before we go any further we need to be clear about what we mean when we use this term. I think Netflix are pretty good when they say ‘Values are what we value. The actual company values as opposed to nice sounding values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted or let go.’ Translated for society – the things that get close to universal approval when demonstrated by our government, institutions, communities and fellow citizens.

If values are what we value, should we bias our teaching to promote them?

If we roll with this for now we’re led to question two – what are British values? Nicky Morgan names them as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs. It seems like a good start to me but further scrutiny is required. Is this the full list? Don’t we value capitalism? Are these western or British values? Is this different to what the US would put on their list? Why does faith and belief get a special mention over gender, race or sexual orientation?

Smarter folk than me will come up with a list and so skipping over that landmine you get to question three.

If values are what we value, and we’re clear on our list, should we bias our teaching to promote them? The initial reaction from most lefty liberal colleagues (and I say that with at least one foot firmly in the camp) is a resounding no. Aghast, they demand that children explore all issues and come to their own conclusions. But we again need to take a breath – do we really believe that? What if children, like the three girls from Bethnal Green, decide that signing up for IS is the right call? Are we OK with that? Or do we really mean ‘let kids explore these things as long as they come to the ‘right’ conclusion?’

Then towards the final hurdle – how do we teach these values in our schools? Part of the reason that we’re in this mess in the first place is because we’ve botched the job at least twice in the past 10 years. We had the right idea in citizenship education but we rushed the implementation and it’s now ‘integrated into the whole curriculum’ which is school speak for ‘we ignore it’. Morgan’s most recent attempt at changing the Ofsted framework is even worse. If we value teaching children about values, if we really think this stuff is important then we have to take it seriously. A bit of lip service, a ‘half GCSE’ and some words on a website are clear signs that we don’t.

I’d scrap citizenship and create civics giving it the same status as history and geography

My plan? I’d scrap citizenship and create civics giving it the same status as history and geography. I’d phase it in over time – building up a pipeline of skilled teachers who can actually teach it keeping it as far away from ‘learn2learn’, ‘learning4life’ as possible. I’d introduce votes at 16 and link the two together, alongside social action, community organising and shadow jury service so that these values are caught as well as taught. And, I’d start it off in primary schools with a strong bias towards our list pulling back over time and allowing children to explore the other perspectives.

If we get question 4 right we might find that questions 1, 2 and 3 begin to answer themselves.



Matt Hood is a teacher and Labour Party member

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  1. This is a great exploration, along with some healthy elephant spotting! Nice one. If the solution must come from the center, then the one outlined here seems pretty decent. But, as you say, this has been botched twice… can we really be bothered waiting for another go? What about individual teachers exploring and understanding virtues/values in their own lives, then sharing this experience with their students? Those interested in this approach are more than welcome to pop questions to me (www.leahkstewart.com) as I’m video-interviewing a lady from the Virtues Project next week.

  2. We already have the mechanism to do just this – Philosophy for Children. Practised in around 60 countries worldwide it is a proven way to support children to explore all these issues – and more – in a respectful way.It would be great to provide money and training for teachers – but without it becoming a national strategy, which is always the ‘kiss of death’ to anything exciting.

    • This is a really interesting exploration, Matt. Like you, when I set my mind to it, I ended up coming up with more questions than answers. I think that as well as a focus on the values element – on what exactly a value is, and whether it can be considered a ‘British value’ – the renewed focus on FBV gives an opportunity to engage critically with the question of Britishness. Like Sue Dixon says, above, approaches that promote discussion and reflection might be the best suited method to approaching big questions, be they philosophical or (like this one) more about identity, society and culture. In our school, I have put together a short scheme of work on Britishness which encourages children to consider what it means to be British and to consider their own identities alongside this. This more ‘open’ approach has led the children to actually think about this question, and through doing so, they are engaging with the fundamental values of democracy and free will.
      If done badly – only copy and pasting the DfE guidance onto school websites and pumping Pomp and Circumstance out into the playground – this whole shift is going to be pointless and unhelpful. If done well, through a renewed status given to the role of citizenship education and critical reflection, it could go some way towards actually promoting an active citizenship and a sense of cultural cohesion.