Is it wrong to doubt 'British values'?

25th August 2006 at 01:00
How do you make kids good? How do we teach them to distinguish right from wrong? Teachers don't know the answer and, hundreds of Asbos down the road, neither does the Government.

As for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, it seems it has given up trying. Under its new draft guidelines, the difference between right and wrong will longer be taught. Instead 11-14 year olds will be instilled with "secure values and beliefs" and become "responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society."

That reminds me of a speech by Mayor of London Ken Livingstone when he held the first public Diwali celebration in Trafalgar Square. He praised the Hindu community for being good citizens because they had created many jobs in Britain. A voice in the crowd grumbled: "Can't we be valued for who we are, not just because we create jobs?" It seemed to that grumbler that Ken's idea of goodness was rather utilitarian.

Gordon Brown has a thing about British values. He links teaching these in schools to the need to bring straying Muslim sheep into the fold post-911 and the London bombings. Morality and good citizenship are linked - but in utilitarian way.

That begs this question: is good "citizenship", as defined by Blair or Brown, valued more than being a good person? And where does it stop? In Hong Kong some 200,000 scouts, girl guides and cadets have been roped in by the Government to search websites for pirated songs and video clips and report them to the authorities.

Why does this make us feel uneasy even though we know such downloads infringe copyrights and are wrong?

In Asia it echoes Mao Zedong's cultural revolution when youngsters informed on parents and teachers. But even outside Asia there is a sense that the state should not hijack civic sense for its own ends. Besides, informing on people is no way to promote social cohesion.

Citizenship and moral education can go hand in hand successfully. In Japan, education includes being a model person and developing social relationships that contribute to the collective good. It includes being respectful of others and feeling a valued member of the community. Japanese pupils are not taught citizenship as such.

Citizenship is about rights and responsibilities. In a liberal democracy it is fairly clear what these might be and they can be taught. But moral values are not so clearcut. Like it or not, British culture is undergoing change and so are its values - ask anyone over 40. Reasserting "British values" in schools as a way of promoting good citizenship is not the way to go. Values should develop organically out of today's society we have now.

Immigrant groups may consider some British "values" quite immoral, such as the supremacy of the individual over the family or community, sexual freedom, or abandoning elderly parents.

Even in the West, with its supposedly shared values there is no consensus on capital punishment or abortion. Multicultural societies like ours will agree on some moral values and disagree on others, it is only natural. But the hidden agenda that links values education and citizenship does not like that.

Of course in this country, teachers will not indoctrinate but explore values through discussion. But in practice this also means a pupil cannot say something is right because it says so in the Bible or Koran. They must account for their judgement - meaning teachers can easily give the impression that religiously-based morality is somehow "unBritish".

Many immigrant communities are more secure in their values and beliefs than the rest of the population. But like it or not, there is a hierarchy of values which puts certain western values at the top and it is hard to avoid this in a discussions about values.

There are many ways to be a good person and young people will not become good citizens unless they develop their own sense of right and wrong. But morality is like any other education - important for its own sake, and not just for utilitarian reasons.

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