I have argued against the idea of teaching ‘British Values’ on a few occasions but the NUT might make me reevaluate my position. If, for example, we made one of the fundamental British Values ‘nurturing civilised disagreement and debate’ then I could argue that this (so-called) British Value should be at the centre of teaching and learning.
That social media can platform all sorts of debate is a good thing but there seems to be a burgeoning desire for some to close down debate, to be intolerant of other viewpoints and to be vehement in the closing down of debate by using emotive tactics displaying ‘hurt’ or by ‘virtue signalling’ about how caring they are and about how cruel the ‘other lot’ are. This article on ‘the culture of sensitivity’* is a good description of how this is being played out on American campuses. There is something we could do about this in our schools. We could open children’s experience up so that they realise there are a wide variety of opinions, they could learn about different ideologies and the history of thought. Pupils could be made aware of where arguments might come from and why, in a pluralistic society, dissent and disagreement is fundamental to how we do things as is the ability to live with each other cheek by jowl and that debate, with all its difficulties, is at the centre of our democratic settlement.
If the reporting of the NUT conference is true, and I am taking this from the Telegraph so some bias might be occurring from what is being ‘left out’ of the story, then there are some worrying signs about what is becoming of debate in schools. It is, helpfully, summed up in the following words from one delegate:
We organised a politics day for Year 8s in the week before Easter. They had a day to form a political party in their tutor groups to come up with a manifesto, film a broadcast, and make banners and take part in a debate… Apart from the quality of the work, the other thing that really made my proud was that every single tutor group had as a policy, ‘refugees welcome, open the borders’.
I find this worrying in a number of ways. Firstly a ‘politics day’ might be ticking a box but can it really open up understanding of what is such a crucial part of understanding the world? This, from what little I can gather from the comment, seems to be asking children to do a lot of activity which might look like they are doing politics without really tackling what politics is about. Maybe it is a reflection of our times but there seems to be more activities about spin than about fundamental ways of thinking about how to organise our lives. That the pupils took part in a debate might be healthy, but that every single tutor group came up with the same policy: ‘refugees welcome, open the borders’ smacks less of debate and more of their teachers manipulating that outcome. Maybe it was co-incidence, I don’t know. In the context of what the teacher said, however, I would expect it is more about the teachers trying to get across a point of view:
We have to stand together across communities to bring down barriers, bring down borders, to say no to Islamaphobia, no to anti-Semitism, no to fascism and any form of racism. As my Year 8s said, refugees welcome, open the borders.
I wrote this yesterday, about how we should avoid trying to get pupils to recreate our utopian view of what the future might be. It is for them to make the future and they will have to do this in the eye of the storm of differing views. That the western education tradition is reaching an impasse where children who disagree are silenced or realise their job is to be quiet so as not to upset the ‘politically virtuous boat’ should be a worry. I remember children taking part in ‘just say no’ plays about drugs, they knew what they ‘ought’ to be saying in the context of school, that drugs were bad, but then in the world outside of school some were happily indulging in whatever pill or joint took their fancy.
This is not to say that we should not challenge views that are beyond the pale, we should. We can’t do this, however, if those views are kept away from the classroom. The ‘Prevent’ strategy, as the NUT suggests, could ‘divide’ communities. One of the best ways to ensure children have a respect for, so-called, British Values is to ensure, rather than having a ‘politics’ day, that debate becomes a regular feature of how we educate. Instead of just encouraging children to sound off about whatever is the grand issue of the day this debate should be rooted in knowledge about issues, deep understanding of differing viewpoints and ideologies and where they come from. This should result in a realisation that the complexity of the world means that their generation will be responsible for things that will not be solved through bandying about a few agreeable slogans but through real thought and protracted dialogue.
*Thank you to Cristina Milos, @surreallyno for pointing this article out to me.