What country, friends, is this?

I do talks all over the country to people about to graduate as teachers.  We always discuss the  Teachers’ Standards. I have am often genuinely astonished by the reaction to them.

When I first saw them, I thought that (particularly Part One) was a rather boring and uninspiring list of classroom-focused skills rather like a poorly written job description. (Some people used to say to me that the GTC’s Code of Practice was patronising… you should read these…)  Apart from the fact they seem to have Michael Gove’s voice and tone in almost every line (and that can be quite annoying in itself) Part Two includes the revelatory paragraph that teachers should not express personal beliefs to young people “in ways that might lead them to break the law.”  Phew! well, that’s a relief… I’m sure most teachers didn’t realise they weren’t supposed to do that!

But the thing that has astonished me is the reaction that nearly all students have made to the line “Teachers should not undermine fundamental British values”. Without exception every group of teacher trainees I have met in the last two years since they were introduced have expressed either surprise, curiosity or dismay at this statement.

Many say: “What are fundamental British values? – I have no idea!” Others question: “Who is defining fundamental British values here? Is it Michael Gove?” and “I’m not sure how to teach fundamental British values alongside inclusivity in a multi-cultural society”.

But at one session, there was an interesting voice of dissent and it came from a foreigner. An Italian student doing a PGCE said she thought it was obvious what British values were, and she went on:

“As a foreigner British values are very apparent in contrast to the values of Italian society. She said, “A society’s values are not obvious to you when you live within it. But try living in another country, you will soon be able contrast the values of that society with your own – they become obvious – and that’s even between countries like Britain and Italy, let alone a comparison with somewhere like Saudi Arabia.”

I thought this was interesting – just because we might find ‘fundamental British values’ difficult to define doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

And as a parent, I might find the statement rather re-assuring. After all, I might say: “I don’t know who you are. Or what kind of personal values you bring in to the classroom. For all I know, you might be a racist, a sexist or a religious fanatic. Shouldn’t I as a parent and taxpayer have a right to know that British values are being upheld in our classrooms and schools? And if you, as a teacher, don’t know what fundamental British values are – maybe you should find out before you start teaching my kids…!”  (I’m being quite a challenging and difficult parent here, as you can see…)

But trainees – in responding to these Standards – reveal what happens when, as new entrants, we enter a profession like teaching. We begin to realize that our personal values – whatever they are – become apparent, explicit and visible to ourselves and others.

Suddenly we must begin to integrate and accommodate our personal values – often assumed and implicit – with a set of professional values. These are usually explicitly expressed and stated in things like Codes of Practice or in this case the new Teachers’ Standards.

Some of us find that process challenging to our particular set of personal values. But this process always requires analysis, reflection and ultimately synthesis.   After all, if entering a profession means anything, it should mean entering a community of shared values.

So now then… what are fundamental British values?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in February 2014.

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4 thoughts on “What country, friends, is this?

  1. Ah, the eternal expat question. Having lived outside of my American culture for over 10 years, the question about “American values” becomes equally fuzzy.

    Values and culture are often difficult to distinguish. That’s why Hofestede calls culture “software of the mind”. We’re programmed – and we don’t see our own programming until we are able to view it as an outsider. See http://geert-hofstede.com/dimensions.html.

    One of my favorite books (and one that has been endorsed by many English) is http://www.amazon.com/Watching-English-Hidden-Rules-Behaviour/dp/1857885082/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1340965468&sr=8-1&keywords=understanding+the+english.

    I can’t pinpoint English values, but I know that I make all sorts of mistakes when I visit England (everything from tipping bartenders to disagreeing with someone’s assessment of the weather).

    …but those are cultural things. From what I can tell, the educational values of teachers in any country are similar: students first. You can never go wrong by focusing on the needs of every individual student.

    1. Thanks for that Janet – really interesting to get the perspective of someone like you. That is to say, someone who shares “the fundamental values” of a liberal democracy on the one hand, but sees how cultural differences (even between two countries that even share the same language) reflect varying social values. I agree with you about the primacy of the needs of “the client” and it’s interesting that in the Codes of almost every established profession, that a similar statement comes at the top. Thanks again for your post. I’ll read you links too btw.

  2. Agree with most of that. Students first; common sense; coping with a pluralist society; training for and holding down a job for more than a week; rejecting patronage whilst promoting meritocracy, and many more facets to living a balanced life which may include aspects of culture and religion.
    Unfortunately, we cannot rely on parents to teach their kids common sense in this “me first, me too” media stoked environment. Perhaps we can teach our kids in part by our own example rather than a multiplicity of words ….

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