Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Schools: we should focus on attainment not religion


British Values. I'm not really alone in struggling to understand what these mysterious things might be especially when they are set out like this:

“It shouldn’t take any intervention from my Department to say that young people should be learning the fundamental British Values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, tolerance and respect – because these British values are fundamentally a good thing."

I'm a big fan of all these things but they aren't what I would understand by 'British Values' - indeed these concepts predate the existence of Britain and could best be described as human values. I also think that teaching young people the value of democracy, liberty, law, tolerance and respect is a good idea - not to the exclusion of reading, writing and arithmetic but definitely a good thing. But teaching young people about democracy, liberty, law, tolerance and respect is a good thing everywhere - not just in Penge or Queensbury but in Peshawar and Phnomh Penh too. These values are universal.

The problem we have is that the government has chosen to use the idea of 'British Values' as a rod to strike at traditional religious beliefs - whether Muslim or Christian. To define British Values in terms only a Guardian reader would recognise.  Here's Nicky Morgan again:

“The events in Birmingham last year showed what happened, when those that don’t subscribe to our fundamental British values try to hijack our education system, radicalise our children and break those societal bonds. What happened in Paris this month, showed what can happen when people like that succeed.” 

What we see here is the deliberate juxtaposition of traditionalist religious opinion with violent terrorism. What Mrs Morgan is telling us is that teaching traditional Muslim religious values (to be clear, I don't find these values particularly appealing) leads more-or-less directly to young men using Kalashnikov rifles to slaughter cartoonists. More to the point, there is no suggestion at all that teaching these values is necessarily at odds with democracy, liberty, law, tolerance and respect.

The truth is that Ofsted - and the Department for Education - has adopted the stance that any hint of religious exclusivity or faith-based education is questionable. And this doesn't just apply to the schools in Birmingham targeted in the 'Trojan Horse' campaign but to schools with a Christian ethos - here's St Benedict's Catholic School in Bury St Edmunds:

The school was the focus of controversy when Ofsted last year included it in a blacklist of schools failing to promote “British values” and downgraded it from “good” to “requires improvement” because younger pupils were unaware of the dangers of radicalisation and extremism.

Quite what those younger pupils were exposed to isn't clear - perhaps they were learning about that well known Catholic radical, Guido Fawkes? Or maybe teachers were telling them that The Inquisition was actually a fine institution dedicated to saving souls rather than to torture and execution by fire? The truth of the school is that it's a great school providing what parents want - a safe place and good education:

St Benedict’s Catholic Secondary School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, was ranked 56th best in England when School Performance League Tables were published last week. It was also listed as the “top state comprehensive school” in England and Wales, and has the highest percentage of A-level passes in Suffolk and the second highest by just one per cent ­ of GCSE passes in the county.

More recently Ofsted has acted again - pushing two Christian 'free schools' in the North East towards closure with a focus on 'diversity' rather than on the actual performance of the school. Ofsted pulls up one school, Grindon Hall as follows:

"...the wider curriculum, including form time and the school’s assembly programme, has too narrow a focus to enable pupils to think for themselves and reflect about the fundamental British values needed to live in Britain today.”

The term 'wider curriculum' refers to the stuff that isn't teaching maths, English, geography, science and so forth. But the truth about the school is that it is delivering what parents want - good results:

A-level students at Grindon Hall Christian School have produced the best A-level results of any school in Sunderland. The school pulled ahead of all others in the city with an average point score of 225.
GCSE students are also celebrating, having made the school one of the best-performing state schools in the city. 68% of Grindon Hall's GCSE students achieved at least five A* - C grades including English and Maths.

Surely this is what really matters? Unless Ofsted and Nicky Morgan think that the nice young people leaving Grindon Hall will suddenly up sticks and join some sort of violent religious cult?

In Bradford, Ofsted and the Council have been going into schools because of this focus on fighting 'extremism', on British Values. Which would be fine if they were doing the same for schools that were failing academically. At the same time the political leadership in education has been using its time and resources to conduct a vigorous anti-government campaign rather than on trying to get the changes in place that might offer a better chance to young people in Bradford.

Ofsted is creating demons and hobgoblins - "these people are radicalising our children" - or else wibbling on about diversity - "children don't have any non-white friends" and supposed intolerance of gay and lesbian people by ten year olds. It is time the government stopped all this and began to focus on what matters to parents - and, quite frankly, to the children - how well the school does in its main job of providing young people with a decent education. In the end it's attainment Ofsted should be inspecting not a nebulous and dangerous concept called 'British Values'.


1 comment:

asquith said...

I think there is such a thing as British values, and by definition they can't be expressed in abstract terms, still less taught in schools. But you know it when you see it, from the country pub to the asylum seeker from some theocratic hellhole able to breathe freely for the first time in her life and with all manner of other things in between that I'd be able to think about if I hadn't eaten too much for tea.

That promoting "British values" in schools was Gordon Brown's brainchild is surely enough to sink it. We are one of only a handful of countries on this earth not to have a national day because we have never felt the need for one, so we never bothered to get one. That is the point here.