I am occasionally asked by prospective parents ‘What are the values of the school?’ I am quite encouraged by this as usually the parents are trying to get past the obvious facts about being good at getting examination results and the number of extra-curricular activities and learn something about the priorities and the everyday life of the institution.
What are values? I think that they are beliefs and desirable goals which set priorities and guide actions in specific situations.
As it happens Birkdale has 3 long-standing core values which are published on the website and around the school: care and respect for all, commitment to each other and to the school and the pursuit and celebration of excellence. We talk about them with staff and pupils from time to time although their successful adoption across the community probably relies on a slow diffusion through copying behaviours rather than them merely being recalled from memory.
I like to think that these underpin our emphasis on looking after individuals, on building a strong community and on developing talents of all types, academic and extra-curricular.
What I don’t usually say is that as Head Master I am now legally bound to actively promote ‘British Values’ a different set of principles defined by government. These include democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths or beliefs. Now, I have no particular problem with any of these values but I have considerable difficulties with the whole project.
Firstly, the list seems curiously incomplete. If the aim is to prepare young people to participate as voting adults in wider society then the values advocated seem rather conformist. What about instilling values such as freedom of speech, peaceful civil protest and the importance of occasionally giving elected leaders a really difficult time? How about the significance of hard work and effort rather than freeloading, the importance of creating genuine communities and being kind, generous and courteous to other people?
Secondly, it is hard to see that these are distinctively British values; surely any democratic state situated anywhere on the globe would come up with a similar list. In an age when education is devolved to a considerable degree what makes these British rather than English, Welsh or Scottish values? I doubt in any case that many groups of students, or indeed adults, would spontaneously identify the values in the list above if asked the question ‘What are British Values?’ I also wonder whether our particular and rather idiosyncratic ‘First Past The Post’ electoral system is really the most democratic way of choosing a government compared to the many other versions of democracy on display across the world.
Thirdly, my probably limited knowledge of History suggests that our nation’s commitment to these values has wavered somewhat at dark and difficult moments: it is easy to think of examples of actions of the state which have not been guided by these principles but rather by a pragmatic political expediency. In any case the values seem to have shifted somewhat over time: for example, we are still less than 100 years on from the decision to allow women to vote.
Fourthly, the duty to actively promote these values may impact on the school’s abilities to offer a broad range of experiences. Would I be subject to legal action if I invited Russell Brand to speak at Birkdale because of his well-publicised opposition to voting? An unlikely scenario perhaps: I suspect that a number of our more articulate Sixth Formers would delight in attacking his views and the event would actually end with the importance of voting being celebrated!
Fifthly, perhaps future governments will wish to build upon this initiative, to try to use schools, whether state-funded or independent, as a means of social control, to define more of the values that should be held by the citizens. It has always seemed to me that, in a democracy, the citizens should define the values to be held by the government. Schools should perhaps be places that provide some space for young people to develop their own values, guided by the institution’s values but not dictated to by them.
Anyway an audit of different aspects of school life reassures me that I have (probably) discharged my duty: for now at least I will escape criminal sanction. Birkdale contains pupils with a huge range of ethnic, social and religious backgrounds who seem to get along very nicely. The School Council, elected by all pupils, gives an experience of democracy at first-hand. The recent General Election led to mock elections at Birkdale with a large number of candidates advocating a bewildering array of manifesto pledges. (Perhaps the most eye-catching of these was the installation of bouncy castles around the school to be paid for by a, now infamous, ‘waistcoat tax’. Sadly, whilst the policy was undeniably popular, the electorate apparently doubted the ability of the candidate to successfully implement the commitment if elected.) Comparative studies of major religions within RE and the study of the development of democracy within the History curriculum would seem to cover the remainder of the ‘British Values’.
Reassured of my likely enduring freedom I shall continue to talk about Birkdale values rather than British values.