Unpacking the dilemmas of promoting British Values

1 Jan

Are we losing our way in promoting British values?  Take two recent test cases.

I        A tale of two incidents

(a)        In early November 2016, British Gymnastics suspended Louis Smith, the UK Olympian, after he appeared in an online video in October 2016 with his friend and former gymnast, Luke Carson.  The video shows him pretending to pray to Allah while laughing.   British Gymnastics issued a statement: “Louis Smith admitted his behaviour was in breach of the Standards of Conduct.  The panel upheld the allegation and, taking into account a previous breach of the Standards of Conduct heard in June this year (where it also was made clear to Louis the consequences of any further breach), the panel determine a cumulative penalty was appropriate and order a two-month period of suspension……”

Twenty-seven-year-old Smith accepted offers to learn more about the Muslim faith after admitting he had been “ignorant to people’s religion”.

(b)        Later in November 2016, a row broke out over free speech following a government ban on 32-year-old Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing journalist, after an invitation extended to him by sixth former pupils at his former secondary school, i.e. Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury, Kent.  Yiannopoulos is the editor of the far-right news website, Breitbart.   The Department for Education’s Counter Extremism Unit cancelled the arrangement over safety concerns and the “threat of demonstrations at the school”.

Yiannopoulos, labelled by Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas, a “notorious troll and Donald Trump supporter”, is a colourful character, to say the least, who has described feminism as a cancer, called Islam the real culprit of race culture and said women who are offended online should just “log off”.

However, the decision to cancel the journalist’s talk caused a major row over free speech.  More than 200 – 220 to be precise – sixth form students had signed up for the event – with parental permission.

Yiannopoulos wrote: “My old high school has been bullied into cancelling my talk …. by the ‘counter-extremism’ unit at the UK Department of Education.  Who even knew the DoE (sic) had a counter-extremism unit?  And that it wasn’t set up to combat terrorism but rather to punish gays with the wrong opinions.  Perhaps if I’d called the speech ‘Muslims are awesome’ they’d have left us alone. Disgusted.”

A Simon Langton student encapsulated the feelings and thoughts of many of his peers when he said, despite disagreeing with Yiannopoulos’s opinions, he felt the decision to ban his talk was “wrong”. He observed: “I feel the old adage applies: ‘I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’”

The school, which expelled Yiannopoulos when he was a student, stated that objections to his talk had come almost “entirely from people with no direct connection to Langton”.

“The staff and students of the school were overwhelmingly in favour,” said Dr Matthew Baxter, the Headteacher.  “While disappointed that both, the pastoral care and intellectual preparation we offer to our students, have been called into question, we, at Langton, remain committed to the principle of free speech and open debate, and will resist, where possible, all forms of censorship.”

II        British Values – Dilemmas

So, what is the lesson that emerges from these two incidents? Voltaire, the French thinking, said: “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  It does not follow that you agree with what someone says when defending her/his right to say something. When cancerous thinking lurks in the recesses of a person mind, there is merit in letting her/him articulate it so that it may be challenged and, if possible, lanced with counter-arguments.  History is filled with stories of dictators who have savagely made martyrs of great thinkers who have confronted them with their evils.  However, their (the martyrs’) thoughts have lived on in the minds of others who have then overthrown these dictators.  The most potent way of fighting an idea is with another idea.

That British Gymnasts suspended Louis Smith and the government banned Yiannopoulos from making a speech at Simon Langton School was questionable.

Both these incidents encapsulate the dilemmas schools and academies face promoting the British values of democracy, the rule of law, mutual respect and individual liberty. The problems relate to squaring one with the others.   For instance, where does mutual respect end and individual liberty begin?   Is free speech constrained by religious sensibilities? At what point is democracy – evinced through expressing opinions – breaching the rule of law?

Should Louis Smith have been punished?  Surely he could not be accused of racism because he was not mocking people for the colour of their skin, over which they have no control, but rather their belief over which they do.  In a democracy, we are constantly challenging one another about our belief systems.  In literature we satirise and ridicule them.

It is impossible to go through life without being offended.   However, where we engage in religious mockery to incite hatred of a special ethnic group we cross a red line which becomes unacceptable e.g., where people ridicule Judaism to stir up anti-Semitism. This is justifiably proscribed under the 2006 Act.

Banning Milo Yiannopoulos has been a case of stifling democracy – in that it not only stopped him from addressing the sixth-formers but also prevented students from interrogating his bizarre right-wing views.   After all, democracy is about giving pupils/student voice.   In this case, that voice was smothered.

III     Rights and Responsibilities

There is no gainsaying the fact that rights go with responsibilities.   The right to be heard must be coupled with the responsibility to listen to others. The right to be safe and healthy go hand-in-hand with the responsibility to keep oneself and others safe and healthy. The right to learn cannot be divorced from the responsibility to do one’s best at all times. The right to have friends is coupled with the responsibility to be kind to others and the right to be oneself with the responsibility to respect others’ differences.

Many of those who espouse liberalism lead the intolerance charge. They represent a real threat to institutional and teacher autonomy and democracy (to boot) while having the chutzpah to claim that they protect freedom.

Interestingly, the teacher unions who have been hyper-critical of government interference in schools, supported the DfE and attacked Simon Langton School for inviting Yiannopoulos. Christine Dickinson, the local secretary of the NUT censored the school for inviting a person “well known for his inflammatory views to speak to their pupils without contest”. ATL’s general secretary, Mary Bousted, argued that schools have “a duty of care” when exposing “pupils to extreme views”.  However, Fox rhetorically questions: “Who define ‘extreme’?”  Bousted added: “School is a place where pupils have a right to feel safe.” But do we have to accept the unions’ definition of safety, or can someone else’s take on it be accepted?

Just prior to the planned Yiannopoulos visit, fifty academics from the Universities of Kent and Canterbury pretentiously declared: “It is our duty as independent members of the British education system and academic and scientific community to demand responsibility from the school’s administrator and urge them to take back the invitation to Mr Yiannopoulos.”

There is a tragic hubris in this kind of reaction because it ends up making a martyr of someone who is fatally flawed and insults sixth formers for assuming that they are unable to think for themselves and challenge a person’s warped thinking.

At the heart of the Prevent dilemma is determining where free speech ends and indoctrination begins.   Perhaps the 220 Simon Langton pupils should have the last word on this subject when they signed an open letter stating: “Our goal is not to support Milo, but to pursue the truth and interrogate rhetoric.”

IV     Implications for the Curriculum

The Education (Independent School Standards) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2014 for the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of pupils in all independent and free schools and academies state that to meet the standards proprietors/headteachers/principals must discharge the following functions.

  1. Actively 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.
  2. Ensure that principles are actively promoted which –
  • enable pupils to develop their self-knowledge, self-esteem and self-confidence;
  • enable pupils to distinguish right from wrong and to respect the civil and criminal law of England;
  • encourage pupils to accept responsibility for their behaviour, show initiative and understand how they can contribute positively to the lives of those living and working in the locality in which the schools are situated and to society more widely;
  • enable pupils to acquire a broad, general knowledge of and respect for public institutions and services in England;
  • promote tolerance and harmony between and among different cultural traditions by enabling pupils to acquire an appreciation of and respect for their own and other cultures;
  • encourage respect for other people, paying particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010; and
  • encourage respect for democracy and support for participation in the democratic process, including respect for the basis on which the law is made and applied in England.
  1. Prevent the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school.
  2. Take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views. This should be:
  • while they are in attendance at the schools;
  • while they are taking part in extra-curricular activities which are provided or organised by or on behalf of the school; or
  • through the distribution of promotional material, of extra-curricular activities taking place at the schools or elsewhere.

V       The Casey Review

In December 2016, the Department for Communities and Local Government published the report by Dame Louise Casey DBE CB, following a review she conducted into integrating and enhancing opportunities in the most isolated and deprived communities in England. While the review did not focus entirely on schools, some observations were made and recommendations proposed to help promote opportunity and integration in schools.

Dame Louise highlighted concerns about lifting the 50% cap on faith-based admissions criteria in new free schools (advanced in the Green Paper, Schools that work for everyone) and the wellbeing of children who are being educated in segregated, supplementary and unregistered illegal faith schools. The report makes several recommendations for government, which include the following.

  • The promotion of British laws, history and values within the core curriculum in all schools would help build integration, tolerance, citizenship and resilience in our children. More weight should be attached to a British Values focus and syllabus in developing teaching skills and assessing schools’ performance.
  • The government has included a social need criterion in the allocation of free schools funding and should now move to work with school providers and local communities to encourage a range of school provision and projects to ensure that children from different communities learn alongside those from different backgrounds, perhaps purchasing sites in the areas of highest segregation in advance and encouraging Multi-Academy Trusts to have a diverse range of provision.
  • The government should step up the safeguarding arrangements for children who are removed from mainstream education, and in particular those who do not commence mainstream schooling at all. All children outside mainstream education should be required to register with local authorities and local authorities’ duties to know where children are being educated should be increased. It should also consider the standards against which home education is judged to be clear that divisive practices are not acceptable in any setting.

While every parent has the right to choose what is best for her/his child, local authorities must be satisfied that children are not put at risk. Ofsted and the Charity Commission should be resourced to support additional central and local government action to ensure the safeguarding of all children in mainstream and supplementary educational environments.

Finally, the report makes recommendations about those holding public office. In particular, it stated:

  • “We expect the highest standards in all civic leaders in selflessness and integrity, so too we should expect all in public office to uphold the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. The Government should work with the Committee for Standards in Public Life to ensure these values are enshrined in the principles of public life, including a new oath for holders of public office.”

The report – which is 199 pages long – is preceded by a useful executive summary. It can be read in full, here.

VI     Conclusion

Promoting British values is easier said than done.  Take, for instance, developing an atmosphere of tolerance and creating harmony among different cultural traditions by enabling pupils to acquire an appreciation of and respect for their own and other cultures.   What if a particular culture intrinsically disparages other cultures?  Do we become intolerant of it and if so, how can we comply with this regulation?  What if promoting a culture means that sexual equality goes out of the window?  How does that square with the Equality Act?

In schools, good teachers are keen to encourage youngsters to think for themselves, to resolve their own conundrums, come to their own conclusions.   Would this mean that they should be allowed to question some aspects of the Prevent Strategy?  If they do so, are they to be reported to the authorities? And if teachers don’t report, would they be hanged, drawn and quartered?

A number of years ago, schools had Citizenship on the curriculum. This was dispensed with by the coalition government.  The curricular vacuum was rapidly filled with radicalism which motivated young people to blow themselves up in the hope that they would be rewarded richly in the hereafter.  Writing in The Jewish News on 22 December 2016, Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim and the founder of Quilliam, the world’s first counter-extremism think thank established to address challenges in citizenship and identity, said that the radicalisation process involves four factors – grievances, recruiters, identity and ideology. All four need to be addressed in a non-partisan way if we are to win hearts and minds.

Giving space to pupils to grow and develop could well result in their taking up entrenched positions that could subvert some aspects of legislation. However, if they are to learn to fly, they need that space to articulate the unpleasant that might otherwise remain buried and create sufficient energy for a volcanic eruption of disastrous proportions.

Punishing Louis Smith with suspension and banning Milo Yiannopoulos from addressing sixth formers at Simon Langton Grammar School doesn’t help.

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