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What are British values? Don’t ask the British!

I lead a lot of sessions with NQT and trainee teachers up and down the country about how to 'promote fundamental British values'.


We go through a variety of interesting discussions and activities related to the concept of 'values' - both personal and universal - and how to promote 'British values' through practical activities embedded within the Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) curriculum. Then we look at the Teachers’ Standards. Invariably, at least one person will ask: “What are fundamental British values?” So I put question back to the audience.


Most of the teachers I come across have not the faintest idea.


Even when I prompt them a bit with a helpful reference to the actual section of the Teachers’ Standards where it says: “Democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” - many will even contest that these are exclusively British values, and say things like: “Surely these are universal? They’re found in most countries, not just Britain?”


I sometimes reply – respectfully of course – that they should get out a bit more. If they were to travel the world, they would soon find out that most people in most countries do not necessarily assume ownership of such values nor take for granted the rights associated with them.


So I’ll prompt a little further with my audience… “How about trial by jury… the presumption of innocence… Habeas Corpus… surely these are principles that the British played a founding role influencing legal systems around the world?”


But I can see my audiences are not yet convinced.


I continue: “Then what about things like fair play… cricket and all that… our apparent enthusiasm for queuing… saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a lot… cheering for the underdog… starting conversations with the weather… being the first to apologize when someone steps on your toe…? Doesn’t that show how nice we are?” But then people think I’m being trivial. I’m not.

But some reply: “They may be British but they’re hardly fundamental values.”

So I try again and suggest some things that have been fundamental to shaping our history – “How about Magna Carta… the defeat of the Spanish Armada… the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo… the British Empire, for both good and bad… slavery and its abolition… the Industrial Revolution… Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain… the establishment of the National Health Service?” I ask: “Doesn’t our history reflect various aspects of British values?”


But still people argue with me. “Every country has proud and shameful events in their history. Why should Britain think it’s any different?”


I say “It doesn’t mean we are necessarily better, but we are different.” So I press on (being ever the optimist) and suggest that perhaps our values are reflected in our unique artistic and cultural heritage? “What about the novels of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Tolkien or even JK Rowling, the paintings of Turner and Hockney, the plays of Shakespeare, the music of The Beatles, the mission of the BBC, the Edinburgh Fringe, Glastonbury…?”


I’m fighting a losing battle, I can see. I continue to try to convince my confused audiences how the British global reputation for science is surely a reflection of fundamental values: “The Laws of Newton… Darwin’s Origin of Species… the discovery of penicillin and DNA…?”


Now I sound like I’m pleading with them.


Finally, in sheer desperation, I reel off my personal favourites: “Then what about fish and chips, a nice cup of tea, a pint in the pub…!” but all to no avail.

It is very striking how most British people in my audiences offer much of an answer as to what fundamental British values are or how they are reflected in our history, law, science, artistic heritage or even our popular culture.


When there are foreigners in the audience. It’s a different story.


Recently, I was in Liverpool and a Bulgarian student there was the first to pipe up when I asked the question. “I have lived in nearly all the countries of Europe” she said, “but it is only in Britain where I feel most respected as a woman.”


I was in St Albans, a trainee from Holland said: “Britain is incredibly tolerant of other religions. That’s not true everywhere in Europe. Even where I come from in Holland if you’re not a Christian of a protestant denomination, you are a little bit suspect. Here in Britain nobody seems to mind what religion you believe in.”


In east London, a Nigerian man said: “In my country there is so much corruption. If you want to avoid a fine, get a visa or planning permission you just pay a police officer or a government official. British people think the MPs expenses scandal was big corruption. That was nothing compared to what happens in many countries.”


Reflecting on the observations of foreigners makes an interesting contrast, but we need to feel to feel confident that we are teaching the values society expects us to promote, not just the skills and knowledge needed by industry and commerce.


Make a list of all the activities your school does under the umbrella of the Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) curriculum – it will include a whole range of things like: recognizing and celebrating religious and cultural festivals, local, national and international events and anniversaries; visits to places of worship, museums, art galleries, concert halls, theatres, castles, town halls, courts, Parliament, the local fire station; arranging visits by local councilors, MPs, lawyers, religious leaders; involving pupils and students in array of school activities, clubs and societies like formulating the school’s Behaviour policy, Golden Rules, ‘Anti-Bullying Week’, playground buddies, staff selection, elections for school councils; organizing a Circle Time, a debating society and myriad other social, sports and cultural clubs. Even if you’re a small primary school, the list will probably include forty or fifty such activities.

You will realise that many if not all of the activities you have identified that are currently being done in your school already contribute to promoting fundamental ‘British’ values - such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance. You will also see where you have gaps both in your SMSC curriculum and in the promotion of ‘fundamental British values’.


It will inspire you to take forward new ideas for your class and your school. Best of all, it will give you the confidence that you actually know what ‘fundamental British values’ are after all. And best of all, that you can go in to school tomorrow and teach them!


Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. 


You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’ – a 3-module course with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self assessment exercises and completion certificates.