British Values and Education

I do wish that Mr Gove, the Education Secretary, (and everyone else for that matter) would stop trying to wrap progressive values in a national flag.

I feel uncomfortable about it, whatever the flag – and there’s a lot of it going on in Scotland at the moment too.

According to the Prime Minister, the kinds of values that he and Mr Gove mean by British values are:

  • freedom
  • tolerance
  • respect for the rule of law
  • belief in personal and social responsibility
  • respect for British institutions

Well, with the exception of the last on (which institutions? – there’s plenty of good British people who have little respect for parliament and parliamentarians at the moment) this has nothing whatsoever to do with being British and mostly to do with being a good citizen. (I say mostly because I’ve no interested in being merely tolerated by anyone).

I think that if we want such things taught in schools then we should defend the idea of having proper civics classes and agree a strategy that doesn’t come waving flags of any kind.

There’s also one or two things missing from that list like equality, being a global citizen, human dignity in work and human rights. If the Prime Minister was talking about some of that then I might be cheering him on. As it is, we are left with sound bites that sound like they have been left over from John Major’s Back to Basics campaign.

It seems to me that very many people are weary of religion being such an issue in schools and think that schools would be better without it. Those who promote faith schools seem particularly defensive at the moment and not without good reason.

The things is, it seems to me that it is obvious that faith schools are not part of the problem insofar as they are known to promote rather than detract from community cohesion. However, it is equally obvious that faith schools are part of the problem in that some religious groups have ready access to them and some don’t. Their existence automatically makes people think that everyone should have the right to a religious education no matter what kind of religion the state is being expected to endorse. Furthermore, we know that at least some of those faith schools have strong input (including clergy governors) who walk a long way away from equality and tolerance in the rest of their lives.

My view – the state should be investing less in faith schools not more and it should be promoting the teaching of civics rather than British (or any other pseudo-nationalistic) values.

And if we want progressive values taught in schools (and I do) then we should be prepared to come out and name those values and say so.

Dear Justin Welby

Firstly, thank you for your speech the other night. Oh, I know it wasn’t directed at me, it was for the General Synod of the Church of England. But you knew that lots of us around the communion would be listening in.

In that speech, you said:

The majority of the population rightly detests homophobic behaviour or anything that looks like it. And sometimes they look at us and see what they don’t like. I don’t like saying that. I’ve resisted that thought. But in  [the recent House of Lords debate] I heard it, and I could not walk away from it. We all know that it is utterly horrifying. to hear, as we did this week, of gay people executed in Iran for being gay, or equivalents elsewhere. With nearly a million children educated in our schools we not only must demonstrate a profound commitment to stamp out such stereotyping and bullying; but we must also take action. We are therefore developing a programme for use in our schools, taking the best advice we can find anywhere, that specifically targets such bullying.

Allow me, if I may, to start offering some of that advice that you’re looking for.

Firstly, well done for naming the problem. It is good to stand up and say something unexpected to get people’s attention. Associating homophobia with bullying is really important. Lots of kids have a miserable life because of homophobic bullying and you’ve recognised that and said so more clearly than any other Archbishop of Canterbury. A resounding two cheers for you for doing so.

Two cheers? Ah, well yes. You see, you missed one particular detail. You said you’d heard Lord Alli in the House of Lords saying that 97% of gay teenagers in this country report homophobic bullying and that in the USA suicide as a result of such bullying is the principle cause of death of gay adolescents.  So far, so good. What you missed out on reporting to Synod is that Stonewall’s research shows that such bullying is worse in faith schools and is not tackled as well in faith schools as it is in other schools. That makes the problem one that is sitting right at your door, with those million children in C of E care. Naming that this is a particular problem for the church is something you still need to do. But you’ve come a long way fairly quickly so we’ll just presume that you catch this detail and speak about it fairly soon, shall we?

Now, the real headache is what to do next. I guess the temptation is to set up a committee. However, let me save you some time. Committees always take forever, and I can probably give you some starting points.

Firstly, you’ve said  that you will take the best advice from wherever it comes. Goody! Get on the phone to School’s Out and Stonewall as soon as you are done with synod in York. They’ll be expecting your call. They’ll give you some leads as to who you need to speak to.

What? Did you think I meant that you just needed to talk to those organisations? Oh no, life isn’t that easy. What they’ll help you do is listen to the gay kids themselves. (Start by reading Stonewall’s latest education report if you like, but make sure that is only a start).

My hunch is that those kids will give you plenty to think about and plenty to get on with very quickly.

Whenever I listen to such voices, I tend to hear them talking about role models, challenging bad behaviour and building a culture where homophobic abuse is unthinkable. (“Not cool” is what they sometimes call it. You and I call it “Sin”, don’t we?).

So, when it comes to role models, you’re going to start celebrating some good gay role models and talking about them in public, yes? That will be good role models in the world as well as in the church, won’t it? Ian McKellern can’t get around every school in the country on his own. We need to help him out. A few senior gay clergy making an It Gets Better video would be a start. (You couldn’t find a budget line for that could you, just to make sure it is done well?)

If you’ve a moment, you could check out some It Gets Better videos on youtube. They’ll give you clues as to which other organisations you need to be picking up the phone to, in order to learn how organisations get over homophobia. Start with the military and the police if you like, but make a start somewhere.

Now, we are going to need some guidelines on appointments, are we not? I guess there will need to be a committee somewhere to produce them, but it can’t be hard. Just acknowledge that you want to stop homophobic bullying and so from now on, no appointment of teachers, particularly head teachers in church schools, unless they can demonstrate that they are supportive of gay kids, kids in gay families and gay teachers. Worried about people saying that you are discriminating against good teachers because they don’t like gay people? Face them down Father Justin, face them down. Look them in the eye and say, “You Bet We Are Discriminating!”. And then go on to say that we discriminate against racists (we do don’t we?) and what of it? You’ll win the argument and you’ll make the world a better place.

Don’t forget those gay teachers. We’re building a culture where they can come out, aren’t we? You know, when they can talk as freely about being with their other half as a straight teacher can talk about his or her spouse? Where the kids get to send them cards if they get married (oops, nearly running away with myself) partnered or whatever you want us to call it. Where teachers are not frightened of expressing their love outside the school for fear of what might happen within it.

And yes, we do need some good age appropriate resources for tackling this problem. (We might need some better sex-ed class material too, but why not take that up with your pal Mr Gove when you see him).

However, you’ll be aware that it isn’t just resources that are needed, aren’t you. After all, simply providing a set of resources rather than going for a whole “revolution” in the way these things are dealt with in schools might almost make someone think that you thought that the problem was simply one of the children’s attitudes and that the world (the school?) around them was not partly to blame.

And blaming the kids would never do, would it? It would be like passing the buck on child abuse and blaming the victims themselves. We’d never do that now, would we?

Oh, wait a minute…..