In which I try to work out what British values might be

So it’s been decided that we ought to be teaching British values in our schools. Michael Gove and David Cameron are absolutely agreed that this is a whizz bang idea, and will no doubt be cracking on with that forthwith. Worryingly, I don’t violently disagree with the values that Gove and Cameron are spouting so far. They generally involve vague notions like equality and democracy and tolerance, all of which seem peachy fine.

However, there is, I think, a problem here, and it comes down to the fact that the whole notion of teaching British values sounds a bit, well just a bit earnest. There’s no obvious self-depreciating humour or social awkwardness about it. The notion that we have values that are worth teaching feels a bit self-important. My gut reaction is that any attempt to teach British values should include a section where the teacher looks a bit embarrassed and mutters, ‘Or not. You know, it’s up to you really,’ and then stares at the floor.

And secondly, let’s take a minute to consider what it was that caused Gove and Cameron to decide that equality and tolerance and democracy are of sufficient import to be proactively promoted in schools. Was it a response to the fact that the pay gap between men and women is still around 15% (and much much higher in some professions)? That would make sense – maybe Gove and Cameron recognise the importance to teaching business leaders of tomorrow to value their staff equally. Was is a response to news that police forces in the UK received nearly 8000 complaints of racism over the last 8 years and upheld less than 1%? Maybe Gove and Cameron think the only way to tackle ingrained racism is from the cradle with the next generation. Or was it in response to the fact that in 2012-13 over 42,000 hate crimes (crimes linked to race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender reassignment) were recorded in the UK? Maybe they believe that that sort of prejudice and ignorance fueled violence needs to be tackled from school onwards by promoting tolerance and equality.

But no. None of those things were are the forefront of politicians’ minds when they came out with their ‘British values’ soundbites. They were reacting to the Birmingham schools ‘trojan horse’ affair, where it is alleged that muslim governors attempted to ‘infiltrate’ extreme values and teaching into schools. That might make a person question the sort of tolerance and equality that were discussing here. It looks at though Gove and Cameron think it’s important that people who look or think differently from them learn to value tolerance and moderate their own views accordingly. The sorts of intolerance and inequality that are long-term and chronic and form part of our status quo are fine to carry on as they were. Or maybe I’m being to cynical. Maybe promoting equality and tolerance is a good thing, regardless of the impetus.

Well, this was intended to be a jokey sort of post where I commented on the British penchant for humour and self-depreciation. With hindsight, it seems to have got away from me a tiny bit.

Anyway, no doubt good spirits will be restored by next week, and if you can’t wait until then I’ll be doing my writerly thing in Worcester tomorrow (21st June 2014) along with Sue Moorcroft, Christina Courtenay and Liz Harris when I host the Worcestershire LitFest and Fringe’s Author Panel. Tickets and downloadable festival programmes here.

Author: Alison May

Writer. Creative writing teacher. Freelance trainer in the voluntary sector. Anything to avoid getting a real job... Aiming to have one of the most eclectic blogs around, because being interested in just one thing suggests a serious breakdown in curiousity.

10 thoughts on “In which I try to work out what British values might be”

  1. Great post, Alison. As well as everything you pointed out, I think they are doing it to reach those charming folk who recently voted UKIP. I think we will see a huge lurch to the right in all the main political parties unfortunately. In the absence of any strong opposition on the left I do worry what the future holds. Perhaps Choc Lit ought to come out as the Left Alternative and storm the barricades? Um, you know… perhaps we could? But only if we want to. *turns red,stares at floor*


  2. …wanders around looking at floor muttering ‘equality and tolerance’ interspersed with ‘maybe democracy’ *sigh* and ‘don’t they have RI at schools any more?’ *sigh* ‘Thought multi-denominational schools would cover’… *sigh* shuffles off for another cup of tea, mumbling grumpily…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m always amused by the idea of ‘British’ values, or ‘American’ values, or *Insert Country of Choice* values. What is it with nations claiming ownership over equality, mutual respect, and tolerance? I’d be happier if we were teaching kids those values as human values. After all, decent people are the same the world over!

    *steps down from soap box* 🙂


  4. As someone who thought of herself as ‘British’ (having been educated at a British school abroad) but discovered she was forever ‘foreign’ once she came to the UK, I have to say that the most endearing and wonderful British value or quality is the ability to not take oneself too seriously. Or the inability to voice opinions which are too strong and bellicose. This really marks you out from other nations – and I hope this never gets lost. (Although British itself is such a made-up concept…)


    1. I think that’s part of the reason the idea of ‘British values’ is so off. It just sounds like we’re taking ourselves way way too seriously.
      And historically when we the British get a bit self-important they also get a bit invadey and Empirey. Not taking ourselves seriously is much better.


  5. Any set of values is discriminatory. It introduces the risk for heading overseas to teach these values to the dirty foreigners with their different values. While Sweden, with it’s growing far-right party is far from perfect, I think it still pips the UK for tolerance and democracy. Maybe Britain should teach ‘Swedish values’ if they must teach something!


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