When Michael Gove, in his former position as education secretary, first unveiled plans to make schools actively promote “Fundamental British Values” (FBV) in 2014, it was amid rising fears of fundamentalists exploiting the education system to encourage hate and terrorism.
The values — whose wording was taken from the Prevent anti-extremism strategy — were defined as “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs”.
By 2015, schools had a legal duty to actively promote the values as part of their existing provision for pupils’ “spiritual, moral, social and cultural development”.
Their origins in the security agenda made FBV controversial and the House of Lords Select committee on citizenship said it should be clear that the main objective was "to encourage positive citizenship rather than solely aiming to counter terrorism".
Despite this clarification, a compulsory curriculum strand with such a political origin was always going to raise eyebrows. But when it comes to implementation on the ground, how would teachers respond?
Fundamental British Values: Understanding and implementing changes in values education
Schools have now been promoting FBV for some time, and former RE teacher Jane McDonnell — who is now a senior lecturer in education studies at Manchester Metropolitan University — wanted to investigate how teachers were responding to the task on the ground.
She also wondered how RE teachers were making it fit in with other aspects of values education, such as the recent revival of “character education” and the proposal to reframe religious education as “education in religion and world views”.
McDonnell says: “Values education has been shifting over time with emphasis on different tones and shades depending on the government in power. For the New Labour government, for example, citizenship education was the big thing and it was focusing on active citizenship and participation in democracy.
“I found myself thinking, 'If I was in schools now, how would I be responding to this?'
“I was interested in how these teachers were responding to it and incorporating it into what they do. Are they responding creatively? Is there any kind of resistance? Are they drawing on their previous knowledge, strategies and commitments in RE to make this work in schools?”
Creative responses to incorporating FBV into the curriculum
McDonnell started her research with a pilot study, interviewing RE, PSHE and citizenship teachers in Manchester, and broadened it out nationally last summer, talking to RE teachers across England.
To encourage a reflective response from her participants, McDonnell even recruited a creative writer to work with the teachers to create “imagined futures” of values education.
Some of the teachers worked with her to compile a reflective resource for other teachers to read, including talking and thinking points.
But why was the research important?
McDonnell says: “I thought it was important to find out what they think about it but also to give them the opportunity to talk about these changes in a non-judgemental environment.
“Often with policy it’s a case of ‘what do we do about this one? How do we get FBV into the curriculum now?’
“But we wanted to give that opportunity to talk about things with a broader view, to think about values education generally, what kind of direction is it going in, 'where do you see yourself in all this?'”
So what did the teachers say?
McDonnell says: “The teachers had different perceptions of where these policies were coming from. Some were quite sceptical and had a lot of reservations, particularly with FBV coming from a kind of security agenda.
“Some of them just saw it as a new benign policy and didn’t have strong political reservations about it at all. So that was quite interesting.
“Across the board their enthusiasm for values education per se helped all of the teachers to respond to it creatively in some way and that kind of trumped any reservations that they had around it.”
One theme that emerged was that some teachers were using values education to empower young people to affect political change or change in society.
McDonnell explains that some teachers concerned about the “nationalistic undertones” of FBV saw it as an opportunity to “claim back Britishness from any kind of toxic nationalist discourse”.
They also saw the prioritisation of values education as an opportunity to move away from the very narrow focus on English, maths and science and give a higher profile to softer skills.
One teacher told McDonnell in the study: “This whole thing of being British is taken away and it’s misused. So it’s sort of trying to claim it back, if you like, and put the correct idea on it.”
The shifting emphasis in values education
There were also conversations about how what counts as good values in society changes over time and how you approach that in schools.
But the question remains, if values education always appears to be on shifting sands, where is it going now?
McDonnell says the study highlighted some concerns around the new relationships and sex education curriculum — which became compulsory this September — and whether it went far enough in covering LGBTQ+ rights.
Teachers were also interested in highlighting the links between the promotion of values and religious traditions.
They raised concerns around whether the new knowledge-based GCSE was squeezing out the skills encouraged by values education.
So much for the present, but what future did the teachers who took part in the study see for themselves and their subject, as expressed in their creative writing?
Empowering students through values education
A key theme that came through, McDonnell says, was teachers hoping that they could use values education to empower pupils to affect political change and change in society.
McDonnell hopes that the resource they produced will help other teachers involved in values education to reflect on their practice against an ever-shifting policy background.
McDonnell also hopes that the study will highlight some of the positivity around values education.
She says: “A lot of the [previous] research has been critical of British values policy, which I understand, but it misses a bit, about how teachers are actually responding.
“You’ve got what the politicians say it should be, but obviously things look different in practice to what they do on paper…RE teachers will have their own ideas about what you do around this and are actually doing quite creative things.”
The Faculty of Health and Education at Manchester Metropolitan University has been training teachers and education professionals for over 100 years and is home to the Education and Social Research Institute, an inclusive and radical research space producing world-leading research. Whether you want to become an education professional or develop your practice, Manchester Metropolitan University has the expertise and network to support your professional development needs.
Irena Barker is a freelance journalist