What are "British Values"?
According to Ofsted, they consist of:
- The value of democracy;
- Individual liberty;
- The rule of law;
- Mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different beliefs, and tolerance of those without faith.
The irony is clearly lost on Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman. By stating that schools should embody these values, she is asking them to appreciate and understand each other’s religious practices and beliefs. Simultaneously, in her recent speech to the Policy Exchange thinktank, she stated that: "we see an expanding sense of religious and/or cultural entitlement to have aspects of a school’s provision dictated by the preferences of a particular group, whether or not members of that group even constitute the majority of a school’s intake. This can affect what is taught and what is not taught, what children take part in and what they are withdrawn from, and what children wear or don’t wear."
Mutual respect for one another’s beliefs is a core British value. By denying schools the right to make decisions which best serve their settings, communities and demographics, you are not allowing these "British Values" to be instilled in our young people.
Heads, governing bodies and other stakeholders are best suited to making the decisions in their schools. When dialogue and discussion takes place with all the stakeholders, the needs of the students and pupils can be met. These decisions and policies do not and cannot take the approach that one size fits all.
Contradicting British Values
Each school is unique and has a specific demographic and make-up, which the stakeholders would be sensitive and aware of. Stakeholders should be made up of all the different factions within a school community, including governors and parents. A blanket policy approach to any such matter – be it hijabs or otherwise – cannot be inflicted on schools up and down the country. Such an approach would also be completely contradictory to the "fundamental British values" being championed.
To deny headteachers, parents and governors the ability to make decisions regarding hijabs would be incredibly shortsighted. Ofsted, please stop attempting to interpret my religious practice for me and my daughter. We are both completely capable of making those decisions for ourselves, and I would like to make the decision along with my daughter with regards to her religious practice. This could involve the right to exercise individual liberty – I feel that my daughter should be able to choose how she observes the hijab or doesn’t. It is not for Ofsted to decide.
Dictating how people observe their religions contradicts the British Values that Ms Spielman is attempting to promote. We do not need a white saviour to emancipate us from our religion. Please refrain from, as the NUT conference heard it described earlier this year, "dressing up naked racism as liberalism". Such a decision regarding how hijab should be implemented would also, again, be completely contrary to the mutual respect for my faith and religious belief as stated by the Ofsted definition of British Values. Are we noticing a recurring theme yet?
The Muslim community is often blamed for being isolated and segregated from society. Muslim women have previously been told by the former prime minister that they should learn to speak in English. However, in the cases where Muslims have engaged with schools and have been involved with governing bodies or been governors and concerned parents, we are now accused of "dictating policy". We cannot win.
Ms Spielman also suggested that a "worrying" trend has seen heads put under pressure by particular groups that expect their views to be decisive in how schools operate, "whether or not members of that group constitute the majority of a school’s intake". Surely every child matters, whether or not they are in the majority? If there are children that have a particular need then the school would want to accommodate that if possible. A dialogue with the parents and other stakeholders would only help inform the school’s decision-making process.
Child victims of the Prevent strategy
In her speech, Ms Spielman also suggested that there's a correlation between the absence of British Values and being at risk of being groomed by extremist groups. The reality is that Muslim students, in particular, have been victims of the Prevent strategy, which has become statutory and has been implemented by the state. Therefore, questions about classroom safety are not being asked, and conversations and questions are driven underground and online. Hence the risk of students becoming targets for extremist groups online.
Instilling and promoting British values is definitely something schools are doing, from my experience, but when coupled with the dictatorial approach to religious practice, Ofsted still has a long way to go in understanding what these values are and how they should be implemented.
Anjum Peerbacos is a secondary English teacher in London