Minority ethnic students are baffled by British values

Research corner with Dr Alison Davies, associate lecturer at the Open University.

What have you been working on?

We are in the midst of a longitudinal study compiling and examining the views of young people from minority ethnic backgrounds. We have been gathering their views on things that improve community cohesion and the barriers they experience.

One of the chief issues in 2016 has been schools’ requirement to teach “British values”. Government guidance, which applies to all state maintained schools in England, says that they should “promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.

We asked students about their perceptions and understanding of what British values are.

What methods did you use?

We implemented a survey using open-ended questions, then conducted follow-up discussions with small groups and individuals. So far, we have compiled the results from 250 pupils aged between 14 and 18 from ethnic minority backgrounds, spread across three schools. We have more surveys coming in later this year.

What did you find?

Many students were baffled by the idea of values that are specifically British.

In response to the question of what British values are, more than half the study participants couldn’t answer, or stated “don’t know what you mean”.

Others offered up somewhat superficial traditions such as “fish and chips”, “drinking tea” or “celebrating the Queen’s birthday”.

However, it’s not that they didn’t have or understand the broader concept of values. They had a solid understanding of religious, human and shared values, which they demonstrated eloquently in response to questions such as “How to improve community relations”. But they didn’t understand how any of these values were particularly British.

Democracy, one of the Department for Education’s listed British values, was generally seen by pupils as a system of government, rather than a value, while several Muslim pupils pointed out that the “rule of law” was also a principle of Islam.

One of the values educators are now required to promote in schools is tolerance of other people with different faiths and beliefs. But to these young people, tolerance was not enough: they don’t want to be tolerated, they want to be engaged. They want to come to mutual understanding.

The main message at this stage is that young people want to be consulted and have their say. There was a widespread feeling –particularly among Muslim students – that they are being talked about rather than included in public discourse.

What changes would you like to see as a result of this research?

I hope it’s going to open up more dialogue with young people from minority ethnic backgrounds about what they think about British values and the other issues that affect them. I would like to see them being engaged in these discussions in schools – they have so much to say. Some participants talked about the value of inter-faith festivals or sporting tournaments, for example, to help to build community cohesion.

I also hope the government will rethink Prevent, which all seems very “them and us”. I would like to see young people being consulted on how to prevent radicalisation – they have ideas about how they think this should be approached.

Crucially, they do not want merely to be “tolerated”, nor to “tolerate” others. Beyond tolerance, for these young people, lies respect, and beyond respect lies mutual understanding. They want to engage in a dialogue with others of different beliefs in their classrooms and neighbourhood, so that together they may build a stronger community.

The research was done in collaboration with Peterborough Racial Equality Council and was presented at the BERA conference on September 14.

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  1. The article says that minority ethnic students are baffled by British values. But there was no control group in the survey. It could be that all students are baffled by British values. To be of any value, surely the researchers should have asked the same questions to a group who are not minority ethnic students. Perhaps they are going to do this in their upcoming surveys or has the scientific method been replaced by sensation seeking.