Following the “Trojan horse” “scandal” regarding the alleged plans of Islamist governors at various Birmingham schools, David Cameron wrote an article in the Mail on Sunday about “British values”. He defined these as “a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law”.
Cameron also promised, alongside Education Secretary Michael Gove, that teachers in 20,000 state funded schools will “actively promote” British values. Those who do not subscribe to these values will be ruled out of becoming school governors — though this is laughably impossible to enforce.
As a state school teacher, I’m struggling to know what this means for me. In the humanities we have already seen changes to the Citizenship and History curricula at secondary level, with a liberal rights discourse being replaced by a curriculum of “precious liberties” and “the role of the monarch” in Citizenship; and what Cameron describes as bringing back “proper narrative history” in that subject, “so our children really learn our island’s story”.
When I started teaching, I was struck by the comments of a friend who is a History graduate, saying he chose to become a Maths teacher because he did not want “to lie to children”. I teach Citizenship, History and Religious Studies. I feel confident that Gove would be appalled by my lessons, because I refuse to lie to children, instead teaching them about the brutality of the British Empire; the flattening of German cities like Dresden in World War Two; and discussing with them the role of Christianity in British politics.
I see this as marginally allowing children to access the knowledge that they should be entitled to and providing a space in which they can discuss ideas, as both school and home tend to be repressive environments. Presumably, instead, I should be giving them a right-wing account of British history and society, full of lies, in which World War One was a heroic victory and not an imperialist massacre; and the North of Ireland is wholly proud to be “British”.
I am lucky in that the young people I teach would have absolutely none of it. They readily point out to me when they think something is racist, or biased, or just plain wrong. They are more intuitive and perceptive than your average politician, and will see right through these changes. And they are wonderfully straightforward.
The other day they asked, “Miss, are you a communist?” after telling me that they thought the History GCSE Programme of Study was racist. I would like to see Cameron or Gove try to teach History or Citizenship in the way they would like to (in a London comprehensive). They would be rightfully laughed out of the classroom. A trainee teacher I came across once was told by a 13 year old boy of African background, after talking about all the countries that “we” owned in the British Empire, “That’s because you [the British] stole them.”
Before writing this I had a look at the Life in the UK test for those who apply for permanent residency here. It had some outright lies in it, such as, “British people are proud of their record of welcoming new migrants” —at which I darkly laughed out loud. Ironically, many of the liberal values it highlights are not practised by the Prime Minister or the Education Secretary: for example it says that British citizens should “treat others with fairness”, “look after the area in which you live“ and “respect the rights of others, including their right to their own opinions”.
You can have opinions, as long as they are the right ones. You can practise freedom of religion, within the correct framework (the one white upper-middle class people approve of). You can have individual liberty, but if you are a young black man living in a working-class area, you can expect to be regularly stopped and searched for no reason.
What should I tell my students? Should I tell them that the racism they experience is negligible because the UK is a “tolerant” place, whether they believe it or not? Should I hide my real views and promote the state? Should I instead impose a set of arbitrary “British values” on them?
All of these would inevitably involve watching their eyes roll into the backs of their heads and possibly getting told to fuck off. I think I’ll stick to what I’m doing. As it says in our department office: Keep Calm and Ignore Michael Gove.