What is Britishness?

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Following critical Ofsted reports exposing an alleged attempt to make the ethos of some state schools in Birmingham more Islamic, education secretary Michael Gove has said that starting from September, all schools will be required to ‘actively promote British values’… but what, precisely, are ‘British values’?

Twenty one schools were recently investigated by Ofsted following claims of an attempt to make the ethos of schools in Birmingham more conservative and Islamic. Five failed to meet official safeguarding guidelines and six were placed in special measures.

Park View School – at the centre of the political storm – is not a faith school. Nevertheless, the claims are that boys and girls were being taught separately, assemblies put forward extremist Islamist views and a culture was created in which other religions were seen as inferior. The school hotly disputes all these claims.

The widely reported problem at Park View was that the school was allowed to become separated from British society and failed to instil a sense of belonging in a national community increasingly defined by multi-faith, multicultural values. By so doing, the school essentially betrayed the spirit of the national curriculum, where all children, regardless of faith, gender or colour, are given an equal opportunity to education.

As a result of the ‘Trojan Horse’ plot, the notion of British values and what ‘Britishness’ means has been under considerable scrutiny, including how it should be taught in Britain’s schools.

So what is ‘Britishness’?

The government’s view
Following Ofsted’s report on the 21 schools in Birmingham, the government’s definition of ‘Britishness’ means fighting to prevent the dangers of Islamic extremism from taking a hold of our education system, and 'British values', according to David Cameron, include freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and a respect for British institutions.

The Independent School Standards, which apply to private schools, already require schools to respect 'British values'. The wording of this is likely to be tightened and require schools to now actively promote British values. From September, the Ofsted framework will be changed to extend this requirement to all state schools, not just academies.

What this means is that more than 20,000 schools in England will be required to put democracy, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths at the heart of the curriculum.

What the people think
The prime minister’s emphasis on tolerance as a measure of Britishness offers an interesting contrast to the most recent survey of British social attitudes by NatCen, which has found that people think it is getting more difficult to prove that you’re ‘truly British’. The NatCen report found a sharp rise in the number of people who think it is important for people to speak English if they want to claim a national identity.

Language aside, Britons are split as to whether shared customs and traditions are important to that sense of Britishness. The number of people who think you either need to be born in Britain or to have lived in Britain most of one’s life appears to be on the rise, which is perhaps reflected in the increased political and media focus on immigration.

And what of the immigrants themselves – what do they make of the idea of ‘Britishness’?

In another survey on men and women who had arrived in Britain from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh between 1956 and 1972, the majority of interviewees confidently described themselves as ‘British Indian’, ‘British Pakistani’, or ‘British Bangladeshi’.

The sense of Britain being their home meant that few entertained the notion of eventually returning to their place of birth, even though they had often clung to such a possibility during their early years of settlement.

They were also remarkably consistent in their sense of what British values were. Alongside a legal definition of Britishness (the right to hold a passport, which they clearly prized), they identified a core set of values – religious toleration, the welfare state, respect for law and order, and the monarchy.

Having the freedom to practice their religion was clearly something very important to all of those interviewed.

The default position is to think of core British values as a quest for what culturally we have in common – a search for sameness. But for many immigrants, the respect for diversity is right at the heart of what they most valued about living in Britain – such as the freedom to practice religion.

While the issue of religious diversity was not directly canvassed in the British Social Attitudes Survey, when asked whether being a Christian was an important measure of Britishness, only 25 per cent replied that it was.

Defining Britishness - is it necessary?
What should we make of these first generation Asian migrants' articulation of British values? On the face of it, there is a fair overlap between their values and those of the rest of the country, both as articulated by the prime minister and as elicited by replies to the British Social Attitudes survey.

In the wake of Ofsted's findings on the ‘Trojan Horse’ plot, Mr Cameron said ‘British values’ included a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law.

According to figures from the British Social Attitudes survey, a third of people are very proud to be British, compared with 43 per cent a decade ago. The young and highly educated are the least likely to feel proud to be British than older people or those with fewer qualifications.

Proud or not, almost three quarters of people (74 per cent) see Britain as being defined by the monarchy. The BBC and pubs are also among the most important aspects when it comes to defining Britain. William Shakespeare, the House of Commons and our weather also top the list of key British associations.

Britishness, it is often suggested, is ultimately about shared values of tolerance, respect and fair play, a belief in freedom and democracy – which is roughly what Mr Cameron reiterated.

However, we will never break out of the current cycle of confusion about British values until we allow ourselves to think differently about them. To breathe life into these values, we have to work from the bottom up not the top down. We have to recognise that for something to be taught it first has to be defined, and for something to be defined it first has to be discussed.

What we need is a nationwide dialogue about the British values we do – and perhaps don’t – share, a dialogue that spans the sacred and the secular, the north and the south, the urban and the rural, and the advantaged and disadvantaged.

It may well be that our schools are among the best drivers of this dialogue, but only if we downplay its condescending tone in favour of our best traditions of democratic debate.

Let’s not forget, what children want above all else is to fit in – the desire not to be different. The goal of education in all diverse communities must therefore be to instil a sense of belonging to the wider community, and to the country in which they live.


Images: Top: Ian Jones. Left: Getty Images. Centre: hud.ac.uk. Right: virginexperiencedays.co.uk.

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