'The British values I'm happy to promote in schools are increasingly at odds with the world I see around me'

6th December 2016 at 17:35
Citizenship
I cannot perpetuate what have seemingly become the prevailing 'values' of our society in 2016, writes the former Department for Education mental health tsar

Increasingly, as I spend my time Britain-trotting to visit three or more schools per week, I’m being asked to sign a form which says I promise to "promote British values".

When I’ve questioned whatever teacher has thrust the form under my nose, I’m usually told it’s "just something we have to do now" to "protect the school" and "not to worry, just to sign it". So I do (I’m a trusting soul).

Yet I’m troubled because, despite having been a British person since birth (in excess of thirty-five years) I am less sure of what constitutes a "British value" than I have ever been.

And if I don’t understand what "British values" are, then how can I be sure I am promoting them?

The whole thing has a distinct whiff of Section 28, in that it’s horrendously vague yet creates a disproportionate amount of trepidation amongst educators.

I once sat in on a lesson in an international school where teenagers from France, America, Russia, China and Britain were asked to compile a list of what they thought defined the personality of their home-country. Extraordinarily, by the end of the exercise each child’s list was essentially identical.

All claimed that their country invented fairness, democracy and generally being excellent to each other.

When it was pointed out to them that their country didn’t have a monopoly on being nice, the British pupils came up with "tea and curry".

Not only were they technically foodstuffs as opposed to values, but one was from China and the other from India.

After much thought and discussion, eventually they conceded the only thing which could truly be claimed as being British was "a penchant for taking the piss out of ourselves and others, even if they are our friends".

Now, without wishing to boast, I am excellent at this sort of piss-taking (which I suppose is only befitting since I’m a Member of Her Majesty’s British Empire) yet somehow I don’t think that’s what the form is alluding to.

So, I did what any reasonable journalist of the technological age would under such circumstances and asked Twitter what its users thought British values were. Here are some of the responses:

“Sticking a flag in things that don’t belong to us”

“Racism”

“Wearing a poppy and belligerently berating those who don’t, whilst simultaneously voicing open support for neo-fascists”

“Whiteness, Christianity, bigotry”

I’m not comfortable promoting any of the above, however British they might be.

And when I really sit down and think about what my definition of Britishness is, my experience of being British and what I hope we, as British people aspire to, increasingly it’s at odds with what I am hearing and seeing in the world around me.

My great grandparents were immigrants, who came to Britain to seek refuge during Hitler’s regime. They were able to have a family who have, with each successive generation, done a little "better" than the one before (my brother and I are the first to have gone to university). This is, I have realised, a British identity I have clung onto unconsciously.

I have thought of Britain as a place which welcomes those in need, which gives its citizens opportunities for social progression, where different races and religions blend together harmoniously (whilst, of course, affectionately taking the piss out of one another).

The rise of the cuddly-sounding alt-Right (often referred to as "Neo-Nazis") in Britain and America has lifted the veil on the so-called free-world and revealed something utterly repulsive underneath.

We are, after all, a country that voted to leave the European Union because of concerns about immigration, despite European immigrants contributing a third more to the economy than they take, and despite less than 15 per cent of our land-mass being built on.

We are a country whose two best-selling newspapers daily print headlines which portray ethnic minorities as criminals and scroungers.

We are a country who has made a celebrity out of one of their columnists, a woman who calls refugees "cockroaches" and cacklingly beseeches us to "show" her "dead bodies".

We are a country where, on the day that one of our MPs was murdered by a fascist, allowed a mainstream political campaign to unveil a poster declaring we are "at breaking point" – a poster that wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of Goebbels’ PR campaigns.

What has happened politically in Britain during the past year or so has legitimised racism amongst the wider population.

I have recently heard statements made about "foreigners", Muslims and people of colour reminiscent of the things I used to hear from my friend’s grandparents when I was at school during the 90s. When I was an idealistic 16-year-old from a mixed-race family resisting the urge to challenge them because I believed society was progressing towards more open-mindedness and one day they’d realise the error of their ways.

So yes, I have always (and promise always to) promote the values I consider to be British – tolerance, kindness and ambitions for equality between genders, races and people from different backgrounds – when I visit schools.

But I cannot perpetuate what have seemingly become the prevailing "values" of our society in 2016.

If you want to see how the government defines British values, check out how they're defined in the Prevent strategy (first introduced in 2011 although there's still widespread confusion on the ground).

In the meantime, let’s follow the advice of one of my Twitter followers:

“Safest thing is to just offer everyone tea and or biscuits and apologise a lot. The best of Britain”. 

Natasha Devon is the former UK government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE

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