Debate over national values is a threat to the education system

The results of seven school inspections in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets have brought a fresh wave of allegations that some schools are not providing a broad and balanced curriculum for their pupils, who may be vulnerable to radicalisation. A memorandum on the inspections sent by Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools Michael Wilshaw to the education secretary Nicky Morgan has upped the ante in debates that conflate conservative religious values with the risk of radicalisation and extremism.

In six independent schools that were visited in the borough, inspectors found serious concerns over the safeguarding and welfare of pupils, lack of provision of a broad and balanced curriculum and issues around leadership, management and teaching.

Four of the six independent Muslim schools have been judged inadequate, with two failing to meet independent school standards. The only maintained school involved in the recent inspections, Sir John Cass in Stepney, was also downgraded by Ofsted from outstanding to inadequate. This followed concerns about segregation between boys and girls in school areas and insufficient guidance on “the dangers associated with using the internet, particularly in relation to extremist views”.

The ‘British values’ minefield

Kenny Frederick, a former school leader in Tower Hamlets, articulated concerns that resonate with those also voiced in Jewish communities that have been subject to similar inspections. Frederick said that putting a school in special measures “will only be negative” for a school and its community. “People will feel resentful. All we are going to do is alienate. If I was one of the kids, it would not be doing anything for my British values.”

The whole area surrounding “British values”, schools and religion has been thrown into confusion since the Birmingham “Trojan Horse” affair over allegations of a takeover of school board by hardline Muslim governors. The Muslim community is not unique in stating that the subsequent introduction of a responsibility for schools to promote “British values” and the apparent conflation of religious conservatism with extremism by both government and media is riddled with ideological and political complexities.

For example, Nigel Genders, speaking on behalf of the Church of England, raised serious concerns during the recent consultation into the Proposed New Independent Schools Standards in July. His response agreed that: “There is a legitimate exploration to be undertaken of values in the context of our distinctive national culture, literature, legal and political systems.” But he added that “many of those values cannot be defined as uniquely British”. He continued by highlighting the church’s concerns that the “British values should emanate from a broad public conversation,not from the secretary of state”.

Schools and culture

The apparent appropriation of values by the state is a worrying trend. More worrying still is how Ofsted is being used to police these values – particularly as they have yet to be fully defined. A recent Ofsted report following a snap inspection at the St Benedict’s Catholic secondary school in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, claimed that younger pupils “show less awareness of the dangers of extremism and radicalisation”.

The report, which was withdrawn very soon after its publication, went on to question whether the school prepared pupils “for life and work in modern Britain”. It was apparently withdrawn due to concerns around quality – a little too late for those who had already seen the report posted on the schools website.

The new values police

The present guidance given to inspectors on how to spot a “British value” is scant to say the least. The 2014 revised school inspection handbook contains four references to values which link to curriculum and safeguarding, the most specific of which are articulated in terms of the social development of pupils.

School governors are also instrumental in the whole area of values. The extent to which they are expected to define and be conversant with values at every level of school life is outlined in detail on the National Governors Association website. But the question of how all of these areas will be effectively investigated by the inspectorate and then translated into a tangible threat of radicalisation and extremism remains a very grey area indeed.

Again the issue of British values is making life difficult for governors, as Naureen Khalid, school governor and co-founder of @ukgovchat told me. She said: “I personally think in terms of human values. As long as my school promotes these, I’m happy.”

As director of the Universities’ Police Science Institute in Cardiff, Martin Innes points out that there is a distinct lack of knowledge – not only around what works in preventing extremism, but equally how we can effectively identify real triggers. He also brings home the dangers of branding schools and their communities with extremist labels, quoting the steady decline in Muslims between the ages of 16 and 24 who feel that police treat them fairly.

Trust eroding

The announcement by the home secretary, Teresa May, on the intention to include new statutory powers to prevent individuals being drawn into terrorism within the Channel anti-radicalisation programme, looks likely to place increasing levels of pressure on governors, school leaders and inspectors. But they are already working in communities where levels of trust in public bodies appears to be reaching an all time low.

Of course, it is vitally important to prevent terrorism, but the present system risks undermining hard-won community cohesion. It also risks transforming schools from being trusted institutions at the heart of their communities into organisations undermined by suspicion, doubt and a panoptecon-like scrutiny. This is more likely to give rise to the very activities that both government and inspectorate are so eager to expunge.

To avoid this, as the Church of England’s Genders points out, we need a public debate about the human values that form the core of our society. Until this happens, the grey area around these “British values” is open to mis-interpretation, political manipulation and false assumptions. That may well cause repercussions which could fundamentally undermine our system of education.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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