“British values” and Global Citizenship: seeing the bigger picture

The announcement by UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove that all schools in England would be expected to “actively promote British values” from September 2014, has provoked an avalanche of comment with strong voices of support, but equally strong voices of dissent.  What has been largely missing however, is a balanced and rigorous debate.  Instead discussion has been dominated by personal opinions, attitudes and platitudes.  This is perhaps not surprising given the idea emerged in response to the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair in which a number of schools, centred on Birmingham, were accused of promoting (or at best failing to prevent) the spread of extreme Islamist agendas.  This is inevitably an issue that raises tensions and opinions, and immediately frames the use of (and reaction to) the term “British values” as used in the governments response.

I do not believe this is the sole explanation for the less than rigorous debate however.  I believe it is also partly due to an unfortunate by-product of values; a living contradiction that must be overcome in order for there to be informed and meaningful progress.  So what is this?  Well in simple terms, values are what motivate us and they reside for the most part within our deep sub-conscience.  They are rarely worn in public, but rather inform our public persona that comprises our attitudes, opinions and actions (what we think, say and do).  Our values tend to only become more visible when something stimulates or aggravates our deeper sub-conscience and brings them to the fore.  Such stirrings are often linked to emotion (an image or story that upsets, a work dilemma that angers for example) and are therefore often experienced as absolutes.  Values are the essence of who we are after all, so when felt, they are often felt strongly.  Most disagreements, conflicts and tensions (of whatever scale) can normally be related back to values clashes.

The living contradiction here, is that it is often precisely those moments at which our values motivate us to act with additional fervor that we need to be able to see beyond our own values; to better understand how they have been formed; and to more effectively engage with the values of others and the manner in which these are articulated and encountered.   But how do we do this?

Seize the moment.  Own the learning.
I have been engaged explicitly in the field of values and learning for the past 5-10 years, and without calling it that, for a good decade beforehand.  More recently I acted as the project lead for a national pilot project in English schools called ‘Leading Through Values’.  This was a collaborative action research/learning project developed by Lifeworlds Learning in partnership with Oxfam, British Red Cross, Think Global and Practical Action.  These five, very different organisations were drawn together by a common interest in the nature of values and how these connect to learning in formal schooling.  As organisations that are all variously involved in Global Citizenship, the project was also concerned with whether (and if so how) a focus on values could support and enhance such approaches.

The findings of the project and the implications for schools have been written up and shared in various forms and can be further explored at http://www.learningthroughvalues.org/projects.html, but two key lessons from the project and my wider engagement in values are pertinent to this piece.

The first relates to giving time to explore values.  Within the project, and subsequent professional training being used in schools, one of the most significant factors has been enabling school communities (leadership, staff, students and parents/carers) to explore values (their own and each others) and to become more familiar with how values work.  What this has revealed is that values are complex and varied for sure, but that there is also not as much disparity in values as might at first be assumed.  Instead it has been possible to identify significant common purpose informed by a largely shared set of values, and this has been used by schools as a driver for whole-school change, seizing the moment and building on this positive energy.

The second (and related lesson) is around the nature of learning – of what is learned and how learning happens.  Again, through the prism of values, schools (and specifically teachers) were asked to audit the learning in their schools against that needed to encourage those values they collectively held or aspired to as a community.  This takes the form of an appreciative enquiry, recognising what already exists, but providing an honest appraisal of what is missing.  Accepting the varied nature of individual schools, there is without exception a point within this process at which those involved experience a disconnect between what it is they are doing and what it is they say they are motivated to do.  Variously termed a ‘dissorientating dilemma’ or a ‘living contradiction’, the key at this point is to provide ownership of that challenge.  It can go either way here.  It is easy to become disheartened and to default to what we do in such circumstances, even if we know that is not necessarily what is right.  Education is rife with examples of this.  What is harder, slower, and certainly more challenging is to use this as a turnaround moment and to take ownership of the learning.  This will require change and it will take time, but it is an energising and ultimately rewarding process that has been shown to reinvigorate teachers and to inspire and motivate learning.

These then, are the two key lessons that inform this piece, and they were chosen with intent, because yet again teachers (and particularly those in a lead role) find themselves approaching a summer break from which they will return to another new requirement on their already overcrowded desks (especially so in September 2014).  This time it is this expectation that they should ‘actively promote British values’, so what exactly does that mean and what we can learn from our existing engagement in values and learning to inform and support schools in this.  More specifically how can we encourage them to seize the moment and own the learning that comes from it?

Seeing the Bigger Picture
My greatest frustration in the week or so since Gove’s announcement on British values has been the apparent inability of politicians and pundits to see the bigger picture.  In the same week as schools have been asked to promote ‘British’ values we have also had stories about ‘White British’ children underperforming relative to other ethnic groups, and heard about the challenges of getting ‘British’ workers to perform the same tasks as workers from East European nations.  So what are the very ‘British’ values that underpin all of this and are ‘British’ values that lead to underperformance in education and work really worthy of promotion?  I am being purposefully provocative here and I recognise that it is far more complex than this, but that is precisely my point.  There are those who will respond to the above with statements like “well that’s because they don’t have good values” and there is hidden in here some truth, but also a great deal of naivety.  No-one is devoid of values and indeed research suggests that there is considerable unity in a set of values held by us all, but enacted very differently according to our context and capability.

A grossly surmised analysis of these two related stories can help us to understand this for it is the “White British” working class children and unemployed from former industrial heartlands that appear to the focus of the aforementioned stories.  But are these not the very same industrial heartlands that made Britain “Great”; that fueled the empire through long hours of arduous work and toil?; that built resilient communities that stood together through adversity forming structures such as the currently struggling co-operatives?  I did say this was grossly surmised, but it hopefully illustrates the point that there is a much bigger picture to any discussion on values and that this discussion is rooted in and informed by our history, literature and art, through sport, landscapes and settlement patterns, and in great advances in science and innovation.  What motivated and continues to motivate all of these and what motivates the selection of what we choose to teach about this is all values laden and values rich.

So for educationalists, the call to actively promote values (I will come to the ‘British’ bit in a moment) might not be seen as another burden, but instead as a fantastic opportunity to engage in learning with new and reinvigorated eyes; to see values as integral to the lifeblood of the school and evident not just in what it chooses to teach but in how it chooses to deliver this and in the feel and ethos of the learning environment.  With schools expected to foster their own ‘local curriculum’ to sit alongside the national curriculum, a values approach provides enormous potential and once initiated is hard to disconnect from the knowledge-heavy foundations of the national curriculum.  Indeed I would suggest that using values in the local curriculum as a lens to interpret and connect to the knowledge of the national curriculum can do much to create wise learners capable of finding meaning and purpose for their education that exceeds that of the necessary grades to proceed in a target driven environment.

There is a big picture to values and learning, but the nature of the term ‘British Values’ risks this being obscured (intentionally or otherwise) by a parochial and patriotic shortsightedness that may only further the differences and alienation that apparently motivated its introduction in the first place.  Writing this on the day that England may well find themselves departing the World Cup party in Brazil, this is tantamount to a disastrous own goal in the first few minutes.

Britain: Island Nation or International Island?
So it is here that I turn to the most contentious element of the past weeks’ discussions – the nature of that term ‘British’ and just what are ‘British values’.  This has been the focus of much of the discussion and has to my mind distracted from the more necessary discussion around the interplay of values and learning as touched on above.  Concerns aside, it can not be ignored.

A YouGov poll carried out within a few days of Gove’s announcement revealed that 79 per cent of people felt that schools should explicitly ‘instill ‘British values’ in pupils,’ but interestingly the same poll went on to reveal that only 70 per cent (of the same sample) felt there were such things as distinctly ‘British values’ which already suggests the need to talk about this as 9 per cent of the sample think they should be instilled but don’t think there are such things.  Furthermore, if you dig into the poll data then there are some considerable questions to be asked.

I will focus on just one – the observation that opinion as to whether there are specifically “British values” varies considerably by age group.  Among the 60+ age group, 85 per cent of participants feel there are specifically ‘British values’, but this steadily declines to 75 per cent in the 40-59 year bracket and 58 per cent among those aged 25-39.  Within the 18-24 year bracket only 49 per cent felt there were distinctly British values, with 33 per cent believing they are much the same as in other countries and can not be specifically defined.  This is significant as it is the closest age group to those upon who these ‘British values’ are to be instilled.  It is also significant because it suggest there is room for a much wider discussion around values that is less ‘British’ in its outlook.

This is where Global Citizenship with its more global and holistic approach to thinking, learning and action has so much to offer to this debate and opportunity.  Unlike the knee-jerk reaction of ill-informed politicians, Global Citizenship has been shaped and reshaped by educationalists, with educationalists and for educationalists and has involved genuinely global dialogue.  There is also considerable evidence from schools that have engaged with such approaches of positive change in the very directions that the government is seeming to want out of this current crisis – greater understanding of diversity, greater responsibility for self and others, greater participation and empathy etc.

What makes it different to the response of government and to my mind compelling, is in how it positions Britain.  Whilst providing space for expressing identity as distinctly British, as part of an historic island nation, it places this within a very firm understanding of Britain as part of a global community replete with all of the messiness that this involves whether around trade, immigration, international relations, or a history of slavery and Empire.  But good learning is often messy so rather than ignore this, Global Citizenship embraces this as a rich context for learning and a meaningful conduit for young people to think, learn and act.

Moreover when combined with the more detailed understanding of values as introduced earlier in this piece, Global Citizenship becomes a vital ally to learning, enabling teachers and learners to access other voices, to think from varied perspectives, and to recognise similarities and more effectively understand differences.  The two create a powerful vehicle for whole-school change and  for creating the kind of wise learners that parents, teachers and learners themselves aspire to.  I find this approach to learning much more relevant and palatable than the potential of an isolated Britain upholding poorly considered “British values” that signify an international island mentality, refusing to accept our place within a changed Britain and an ever changing world.

Rob Bowden is the lead practitioner at Lifeworlds Learning and co-ordinator of Learning Through Values, a community space for dialogue and progress in values and learning.  To stay informed with  latest resources, releases and learning opportunities join the community free via rob@learningthroughvalues.org and to follow current discussions follow the Values Soup blog at https://ltvblog.wordpress.com/

This post was inspired by a conversation with colleagues and friends at Oxfam Education in response to the announcement on promoting British values.  The views expressed are entirely my own however.

See this post at Oxfam Education

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