Talking standards: part nine of a conversation between educationalists Sir Tim Brighouse and David Cameron

3rd September 2015 at 11:37
picture of brighouse and cameron
In the ninth instalment of our online conversation, former schools commissioner for London Sir Tim Brighouse (pictured right) responds to Scottish educationalist David Cameron's 'rant' on the newly introduced requirement that all schools promote 'British values'

Dear David

Your latest letter – I almost wrote “rant” ;-) – opened up a wider discussion about the purposes of education and continued our discussion about the limitations of exams. In this latter respect, I took some encouragement from Rod Bristow’s critical analysis of the limitations of exams in TES a few weeks ago and Ed Dorrell’s excellent follow-up. As the TES deputy editor said, when the head of Pearson’s educational arm, which runs Edexel, points out some of the dangers of allowing exams to be so dominant, and is supported by the CBI, it is surely time to do something.

Before we embark on any change we need to be clear about the purposes of education in schools. Here I found myself agreeing with one of the points you made but being ambivalent about another.

First, the point of agreement. You wrote: “I become depressed when I hear, as I did recently, that we need to teach all young people the knowledge that the members of ‘the club’ have, otherwise they will not be able to join it.”

I’ve just started Owen Jones’s The Establishment and, like you, he brings forward some pretty convincing evidence to support your views about “the club”. It certainly isn’t one of the purposes of education in schools to prop up the existing social structures, implied by that exclusive word. 

But then you go on to say: “I think that there is a greater sense in Scotland that we should look more for social change than for social mobility.” That alarms me. Surely “social change” is something that teachers and schools should be wary of? Isn’t it something that is properly political rather than educational? I can recall as a history teacher telling my pupils not to believe what I was telling them – or for that matter what any one historian might say – since I wanted them to be properly sceptical about the underlying prejudices that people bring to the table.

Of course, then as now, I had political views. However, I didn’t think it was my job to let them intrude into my teaching, although of course I encouraged the debate, first espousing one point of view and then the opposite.

So, is one of the purposes of education in schools to “encourage pupils to think for themselves and to develop the skills to do so effectively?”

It is this question of what exactly British values are (which we keep skirting round) which prompts the beginnings of a debate about educational purposes. In England there is now a statutory duty, inspected by Ofsted, to promote British values and even a set of guidance about what they are, including the duty to promote respect for English law. What do you make of that as a good Scot?

If your passport says that you are a British citizen, as mine does, isn’t it time we had agreement across the UK about what it means to be a British citizen, especially as it is now in England the school’s duty to promote its meaning? And if so, how and where do we have that discussion, given that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their separate assemblies with totally devolved powers on education? The answer to that question demands an exceptional meeting of politicians from the four countries to agree on a definition of British values and then to translate that into a few very broad purposes, before leaving the detail of the curriculum and system arrangements to each of the four countries as happens now. (Indeed, you might almost say to politicians that unless they do that, the days of a UK as an entity are limited.)

If such a meeting were to take place it would be good to prepare the ground by getting some committed practitioners together and coming up with some ideas for what those purposes might be and present them to politicians. The purposes need to be general to have any chance of gaining universal agreement.

Do you agree and, if you do, what would be your “starter for 10” so far as purposes are concerned?

Kind regards,



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