Denis Healey tells the story. On the eve of South Yemen’s independence, its last British governor hosted a party attended by Healey, who was then minister for defence. Over drinks, as the flag was about to be lowered, the governor looked at Healey and said, “You know, Minister, I believe that in the long view of history, the British Empire will be remembered only for two things.” What, Healey wondered, were these great gifts to the world? And the governor replied, “the game of association football. And the expression ‘eff off’.”
Stories like this are a reminder, perhaps, that ‘British values’ are more complex and problematic than they appear when grabbed by politicians in a crisis. On Monday afternoon, following the OFSTED report into Birmingham schools, the Secretary of State for Education argued that all schools should be required to teach the fundamental British values of “democracy, mutual respect and tolerance”.
Just fourteen hours later, by Tuesday morning, when the Prime Minister added his voice, the list had become a little longer: “freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions”. And this is what happens: lists become longer, pet topics are added, enthusiasms are produced. In her autobiography, Mrs Thatcher famously recalled her horror that her desire in 1988 for a simple core curriculum became, by 1994, such a complex national curriculum that it needed an inquiry led by Lord Dearing to tame it.
The relationship between the school curriculum and civic understanding – which is what is at issue here – has been fraught from the very beginnings of the National Curriculum. A subject-based curriculum has many strengths, but there are aspects which fall through the cracks. The 1988 National Curriculum addressed this through a series of ‘cross-curricular themes’ (though they were taken more seriously by curriculum developers than they ever were in schools). What is everyone’s responsibility is no-one’s real responsibility. In 1989, the then Speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, established a Speaker’s Commission on Citizenship. In 1993, OFSTED took a different tack, seeking to define social, moral and spiritual understanding, but covering much of the same ground. In 1997 the new Labour Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, asked his fomer university politics tutor, Bernard Crick – a lifelong advocate of political education – to report on the case for education for citizenship. The current Prime Minister and Michael Gove would do well to re-read Crick’s report.
Crick set out three aims for education for citizenship, including social and moral responsibility, requiring morally responsible behaviour both in and beyond the classroom, both towards those in authority and towards each other, community involvement, including learning through community involvement and service to the community, and political literacy, including pupils learning about and how to make themselves effective in public life through knowledge, skills and values.
Crick argued that whilst these were cross-curricular concerns, the knowledge base for citizenship required a dedicated allocation of curricular time, and Citizenship was introduced as a statutory element of the curriculum in 2002. It was abolished by the Coalition in 2010 under the banner of offering schools curriculum freedom.
In his own Newsnight interview on 9 June, the Chief Inspector of Schools, pushed by Jeremy Paxman, said that on the curriculum he personally leaned towards curriculum prescription. It is almost certain that we will now have a new round of consultation, which will throw up many of the definitional challenges involved in translating ‘British values’ into curriculum guidance, in which the list of elements of British values will grow and shrink over time and end up not a million miles away from the Crick Report.
In the most recent edition of the Curriculum Journal, my IOE colleague Michael Young, himself a key advocate of the importance of knowledge-led curricula, offers some astringent and prescient arguments on what a curriculum can, and cannot do: it can educate young people, but cannot, ultimately, reach beyond the school. The evidence of the past is quite clear. Politicians frequently overstate what the curriculum can do. They push definitions too far; they burden curricula with too many expectations.
Teachers and schools need guidance, but the guidance needs to be generic and to support professional judgement. If “democracy, mutual respect and tolerance” are the (British) values we want children to be taught, then they apply equally to the processes by which curricula are constructed. If that’s not the case, then schools and teachers are just as likely to draw on at least one of the long-lasting influences of Empire cited by the last governor of South Yemen.