Whenever I meet new teachers (and most older ones too for that matter) I ask them what “fundamental British values” are. It is after all a requirement of the Teachers’ Standards in England that they are ‘not undermined’.
In most cases, teachers have not the faintest idea.
Even when I prompt them a bit with a helpful reference to the actual section of the Teachers’ Standards where it says: “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” – many will even contest that these are exclusively British values, and say they are found in most countries.
I sometimes reply – respectfully of course – that they should get out a bit more and travel the world. They’ll soon find out most countries around the globe cannot take them for granted at all.
“Trial by jury… the presumption of innocence… Habeas Corpus… these are principles that the British played a fundamental role in establishing in legal systems throughout the world,” I say. But I can see my audiences are unimpressed.
I continue: “Then what about things like fair play… cricket and all that… our apparent enthusiasm for queuing… saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’… cheering for the underdog… starting conversations with the weather… apologizing when someone steps on your toe…? Doesn’t that show how nice we are?”
But then people think I’m being trivial and reply: “They may be British, but they’re hardly fundamental values are they?”
So I try again and suggest things that have been fundamental to shaping our history – “How about Magna Carta… the defeat of the Spanish Armada… the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo… the British Empire, for good and bad… slavery and its abolition… the Industrial Revolution… Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain… the establishment of the National Health Service..? Don’t they reflect various aspects of fundamental British values?”
But still people argue with me. “Every country has proud and shameful events in its history. Why should Britain think it’s any different?”
I press on (being ever the optimist) and suggest perhaps that our values are reflected in our artistic culture and heritage? “What about the novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, the paintings of Turner, the plays of Shakespeare, the music of The Beatles, the BBC, the Edinburgh Festival, Glastonbury..?”
I’m fighting a losing battle, I can see. I continue to try to convince my unimpressed audiences how our global reputation for science is surely a reflection of fundamental values: “The Laws of Newton… Darwin’s Origin of Species… the discovery of penicillin and DNA..?” Now I almost sound like I’m pleading.
Then in sheer desperation, I reel off: “Fish and chips, a nice cup of tea, a pint in the pub…!” but all to no avail.
It is very striking how – almost without exception – no ‘indigenous’ British people in my audiences can offer much of an answer as to what fundamental British values are or how they are reflected in our history, law, science or even popular culture let alone our artistic heritage. Much less how we are shaped by them.
But whenever there are foreigners in the audience. It’s a different story.
The first time it happened an Italian young woman talked about British humour – how quirky and original it was. How she noticed that the British always seemed to be laughing about social class and snobbery. “What a society chooses to laugh at, is an expression of its values,” she said.
Last week I was in Liverpool and a Bulgarian student was first to pipe up when I asked the question. “I have lived in many countries in Europe” she said, “but it is only in Britain where I feel most respected as a woman.”
This week I was in Sheffield and another Italian woman said: “In Italy, I cannot escape that I am a “mechanic’s daughter”. It is like a label I cannot get rid of. But here I think whatever your father did for a living is less important to people. Britain to me feels a psychologically free place.”
Then in St Albans, a Dutch guy said “Britain is incredibly tolerant of other religions. That’s not true everywhere. Even in Holland if you’re not a Christian of a protestant denomination, you are a little bit suspect. Here nobody seems to mind what religion you believe in.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that we can’t identify what fundamental British values are much less all agree on them. We live ‘within’ them and because we are immersed in them can’t identify them objectively the way foreigners can and after all, the British values we will value most are those that reflect our own personal value systems.
But as teachers, I think we should try to identify the most fundamental of British values – and try to agree those that reflect the best things about our society. Shouldn’t be proud of the best things we do? Isn’t it our role as teachers to pass on – not just skills and knowledge – but fundamental values to the next generation of our children?
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.
His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.