The ink had hardly dried on the letter I wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May asking for an apology over the government’s education policy since 2010. And then – before I’d put a stamp on the envelope – another ridiculous suggestion from a member of the government that would impact on education.
Sajid Javid, MP for Bromsgrove and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, reckons newly appointed public servants should stand up and swear an oath about how committed they are to British Values. This would mean every new Sheffield teacher, teaching assistant and governor dedicating themselves to flag and country in a similar way to the Pledge of Allegiance in the United States.
There are wings of the government that are obsessed with British Values. Teachers are asked to deliver lessons about British Values in schools, flagging up whenever British Values are covered. Governing bodies are supposed to have a dedicated member covering British Values. OFSTED have been known to ask questions about how British Values are covered within school.
The first problem with putting such a big emphasis on British Values is that nobody knows what they are. I’ve been in meetings with teachers and governors where there was a lot of head-scratching after the mention of British Values.
According to OFSTED, British Values incorporate democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, tolerance and respect for different beliefs. And therein lies the problem. These are indeed values worth celebrating, protecting and promoting.
But they are not British Values. They are just values. They are no more British Values than they are French Values, South Korean Values, Japanese Values, Finnish Values, Chilean Values and Jamaican Values. Writing a pledge of allegiance, dressing it up in a Union Flag and getting people to swear by it is not a forward-thinking way to run our schools and encourage tolerance. There are people working and studying in Sheffield’s schools who are not British and have no intention of ever calling themselves British. If I decided to go and teach at a school in Toronto, I wouldn’t suddenly become Canadian. I would still be British. And I wouldn’t necessarily expect to have to make a pledge towards Canadian values.
I would, though, share a common set of values with the people of Canada, the teachers and the students there. In this country, sharing this set of common values has been done (and is still done) under the name Citizenship. You can do a GCSE in Citizenship and it teaches the values set, but without the all-important national label. And it’s sharing this set of values that we should be celebrating, not looking at how we can make our set of values more democratic and better than everybody else’s by wrapping it up in a nationalistic package.
Adopting a set of values is not something that will come by repeating a set text dreamt up by a group of detached civil servants.
The pursuit of a set of positive values is not just a ‘bottom-up’ initiative that begins and grows in the grassroots of our communities. It’s a programme that needs encouraging from central government and words alone are not enough. Actions are needed. Money is needed.
There is a series of educational cuts coming to Sheffield very soon on a scale that we have not experienced before. I’ll be letting you know details on this in the coming weeks, but rest assured it’s going to be bad. It’s going to mean staff at schools laid off and bigger class sizes.
So when I hear the government advocating a few spoken words as a method of healing communities at a time when they are tearing communities apart by dismantling public services, it makes me want to hurl my board rubber at them.
At the heart of a good values system is a community that cares, people who are proud to carry out public service and a government that values its employees.
Tearing through the education system with cuts that will negatively alter young lives and leave public servants seeking new jobs is about as far away from a decent values system as it’s possible to get.
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