British values at the expense of education?
Wednesday, April 20th, 2016
In November 2014, the Department for Education introduced a regulation in schools which requires them to “actively promote British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. In principle, these requirements are not controversial in and of themselves, however, they were inspired by the Government’s Prevent strategy after the alleged Trojan Horse scandal. Lord Nash described them as “necessary to improve safeguarding” and “strengthen the barriers against extremism”. What followed, was a series of Ofsted inspections, which intended to illustrate the threat to fundamental British values as taught in Muslim schools, schools with majorities of Muslim students with active parental involvement, and to some extent, faith education per se.
In many of the schools that I have visited since the introduction of these values, there is a display, normally in the reception area, decorated with crayoned British flags, pictures of traditional English tea cups, the Queen and worn out cultural stereotypes of fish and chips and cucumber sandwiches. Many Muslim schools are doing their utmost to defend to the inspectors, what they portray as the consistent duality of Islamic values alongside British values, that in fact, they are really one and the same thing. Occasionally, there are British values days, where students sing the national anthem and wave their flags to express their allegiance; activities much more akin to more dramatically patriotic countries like the US.
As a movement, the Muslim school sector has done little (perhaps nothing) to internally question or externally challenge the introduction of these values. In fact, with the pressure of the Ofsted visits that ensued the introduction of the values, meetings amongst Muslim schools focussed on quick regulatory compliance, rather than challenging the obvious targeting of the Muslim community. Individuals who have been instrumental in the development of Muslim schools were being smeared in the media and removed from the sector using poorly-justified powers of the Secretary of State for Education, yet little was said by the community to defend them. In contrast, the National Union of Teachers recently passed a motion arguing that teaching fundamental British values as per the regulation is a form of cultural supremacism, and should be replaced with the study of international rights.
At a pedagogical level, the fact that British values are enshrined in anti-radicalisation legislation, is creating an environment of fear in the classroom. Instead of encouraging balanced and critical debate about international and domestic issues, many of which are affecting the identity of young Muslims in the UK, schools are scared to address current affairs in the classroom, and are pressured to interpret misconstrued comments as safeguarding disclosures. With a lack of guidance of what these values look like in practice, many senior leaders and teachers are struggling to make sense of how to integrate them into their wider curriculums. Many schools might be ‘complying’ in as tokenistic a way as possible using bolt-on approaches to their curriculum, or training students for the targeted questioning from inspectors that we have witnessed in order to get through their inspection. This is damaging, particularly for Muslim students whose freedom to express themselves as early as primary school is at threat, but also for schools who are trying to promote well-thought curriculums, having to present politically correct narratives to meet culturally targeted inspections.
Muslim schools, and independent schools in general, must learn to be politically resilient, so that they do not become prey to political scaremongering and moral panics. Whilst this is not entirely avoidable, permeating visions and thorough curriculum design will ensure that knee-jerk introductions of regulations by politicians, are absorbed by, rather than undermine the work that the school is already doing. Individual schools should not react negatively to legislation by debating them with inspectors, this must be done strategically by the collective Muslim body.
In order to support schools in this work, national agencies which purport to represent Muslim schools need to facilitate the expertise of senior leaders to debate the content of regulations pre and post consultation. The Muslim schooling community needs to have an opinion, especially on controversial matters, otherwise risk confusion amongst schools with weaker understanding of the regulatory framework and curriculum development in general. This has been the biggest weakness yet. The Muslim school movement has not articulated a collective vision. Aside from regulatory compliance, it has no published narrative on the most pertinent issues such as Islamic pedagogy, aims of Islamic education, Prevent, fundamental British values, migration etc. Until this happens, Muslim schools risk spiralling into becoming very little else other than the sum of regulations.