'Right now I can't see much evidence of "British values" – so let's just teach our children to be decent'

Given recent events and the rise of divisive politics, surely it's time re-examine what we actually mean by British values

Dorothy Lepkowska

What do you need before returning to teach in the UK?

I’ve always found the concept of "British values" troubling.

The term carries a smug superiority that we do things differently here. And not just differently, but better. We’re superior people, somehow, we Brits, though we’re not really sure how or why. The term carries a sense of exclusivity.

But what are British values anyway? They have always seemed to be about tolerance, mutual respect and community. About kindness, compassion and generosity, both materially and of spirit.

British values were about freedom of speech and worship. A stiff upper lip, and keeping calm while carrying on in the face of adversity.

Someone ventured that they were about politeness and courtesy. Maybe. I’m old enough to remember teachers telling us to “mind our Ps and Qs” – whatever they were – but we understood it meant being on our best behaviour. Saying please and thank you a dozen times while paying for groceries at the check-out is so typically British that we tut-tut under our breath when others don’t reciprocate our excessive politeness. Only a Brit would apologise profusely for running someone over with a trolley when the collision was patently the other person’s fault.

I’m not being facetious. These are some of the wonderful traits and idiosyncrasies you’d associate historically with coming from these isles.

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted's chief inspector of schools, last week became the latest in a long line of educationalists and politicians to demand that schools do more to teach British values – her reasoning being that it would improve young people’s resilience to terror. There is a problem with this. Many of the values I’ve described above seem a bit thin on the ground these days.

Let me give you an example. In recent weeks, I’ve been told that "people like you" come here to fleece the country of benefits, which they then “send home to Warsaw”. “Go back where you came from,” I was told. What, West Bromwich?

"Libtard", meanwhile, has become an insult used by a certain section of the population for whom openness and tolerance has become anathema. This mix of "liberal" and "retard" is probably the most un-British word I can think of.

The language of division

No one reading this needs an explanation of how we have arrived here. The situation is not helped by the actions and rhetoric of our politicians and leaders. If you use discriminatory language of division and otherness, don’t be surprised if people follow.

In reality, of course, there are few, if any, values that are exclusively British. There may be national traits and characteristics, but what we hold dear and important is also true of most other nationalities, races and creeds. These are basic, human, universal values of decency and care of one person for another; for family, peaceful community and social cohesion.

But as this has been brought up again, and it has been proposed we teach them in schools, then we need to re-examine what we now mean by British values.

What we once vaguely understood these to be seems now to hark back to another time, replaced by a new set of accepted attitudes and behaviours that define our current social and political climate and us, differently now, as a nation.

Until we sort out who we are and aspire to be, let’s discard the nationalistic labels. Please, just help us teach our children to be decent human beings; to be kind, tolerant, generous and open-minded. And yes, resilient. We can all subscribe to that.

Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance journalist and writer. And a parent.

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Dorothy Lepkowska

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