Why Jo Cox was putting Britain first and why teachers should too.

Jo Cox, the Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen was murdered on Thursday listening to her assassin allegedly shouting at her: “Put Britain first!”

Though I am a fairly avid observer of politics and current affairs, I had never heard of Jo Cox. Now that I know what kind of person she was and the values she held, I don’t think I will ever forget her.

But for me, the terrible irony of her murderer’s words “Put Britain first” is that, that’s exactly what Jo Cox was doing.

Let me explain.

I do teacher-training sessions all over the country on ‘British values’ – this week I went to York, Lincoln and Bedfordshire.

I discuss ideas and practical activities with new teachers of how they can not only positively challenge discriminatory attitudes and behaviour but how they can promote ‘British values’ of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs. The sessions are lively, thought-provoking and fascinating – above all they are very challenging.

I don’t let anyone get away with expressing lazy clichés or untested ‘accepted wisdom’. I tell people they can relax about their awkward use of language and for a couple of hours I ask them to put aside so-called ‘political correctness’. I ask them to challenge themselves and each other about what they think their values are.

I ask questions like “What’s the one thing you would most like to change about the world?” “Why are you, you?” and “If you were forced to flee this country, which one would you go to?”

I ask them to select (from a list of over a hundred values) their most important personal values and then to reduce that list to just five – their one ‘fundamental’ values.

We discuss stereotypes and icons of ‘Britishness’. I ask them to compile a list of ‘British values’.  We do practical activities that explore questions like: “What makes you British?” I suggest ideas of how they can express this in their own terms.

I ask them to consider how so-called ‘universal values’ came about – like those expressed in the UN Rights of the Child or the UN Declaration of Human Rights – and what relevance they have to their personal lives and values.

By the end of the session, I hope these young teachers see how their values are made up of layers of real, ‘down to earth’ personal, family, community and society values as well as more idealistic and aspirational ones too.

But at the beginning of last week millions of British children were coming in to school with deep and fearful questions about why forty-nine gay, lesbian and transgender people were killed in Orlando. By the end of that week the same children – millions of them – had similar questions about why Jo Cox was murdered.

The answers we give to those difficult questions goes to the heart of why we must teach children to value democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs.

It is perfectly understandable why teachers feel they have no confidence in teaching these so-called ‘British values’, let alone tackling difficult issues and questions when they arise – as they did last week – and will continue to do. But I believe we must try – with the same courage and vigor Jo Cox showed going about her constituency.

Now that I know a little more about Jo Cox and her values, I am convinced that she had a very deep and passionate commitment to British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and perhaps especially, tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs.

She believed, as I do and as every teacher should, that these values are not held up to impose the will of an establishment or a majority on a minority but they are held up to protect us all; they are not held up to restrict but to enhance, they are not held up to diminish but to fulfill – all our lives.

The terrible and distressingly tragic irony of her loss is that she was trying to uphold and extend those values to all of her constituents when she died – including the lonely, the isolated, the voiceless, the unemployed and the mentally ill – and even to the man who killed her.

So I believe, I really, really believe that Jo Cox was fundamentally trying to put Britain first.

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 professionalism and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk. His book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

This is the kind of school I want all our children to go to. If you are thinking of teaching as a career, train here…

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