As the daughter of two refugees, my initial reaction to the “British values” agenda which emerged from the “Trojan Horse” allegations in Birmingham schools was one of anxiety. It seems hyperbolic to write this now but, at the time of its emergence, the term “British values” brought to mind the National Front campaigns I remembered in the 1980s. Based on the initiative’s title alone, my gut feeling was that it smacked of Britain First posts on Facebook, caricatured bigots from Little Britain and the kinds of people who sidle up to me at parties to ask where I’m “from” (I generally respond “Sheffield”, only to get the predictable follow-up question: “Yes – but where are you FROM from?”).
Conversations that I’d had with colleagues from schools didn’t help with my negativity. One trainee teacher who worked in a primary school told me that they’d completely “covered” British values through discussions on table manners and differences in dinner-time etiquette when compared with other cultures. It was all very Enid Blyton. She was horrified; I was horrified.
I didn’t see how my own distaste for the idea would fade over time and then British values well and truly started to hit FE. It wasn’t just an idea bandied about by those in the know on edu-Twitter any more, it was a real agenda to be discussed and embedded; it was being talked about everywhere.
So I devoted more of my time to investigating these “values”. I searched YouTube, looked at resources on Pinterest and, much more importantly, I watched how other professionals, people whom I admire and trust, took the whole ethos in their stride and made it their own. Much like the proverbial worm, I found that I began to turn.
I started to feel more in harmony with the values that had been listed. Did I like democracy? Well, of course I did! I’d lived under a political dictatorship in Chile for a year and I didn’t like it one bit. Tolerance? One of my most prized traits and something I respect above all else in other people. Freedom of speech? An absolute pre-requisite for those like me who get a little too loud and controversial after a few G&Ts on a Friday evening. Appreciation for the rule of law? Completely – unless I’ve been caught speeding, perhaps.
Colleagues all around me started to really take the whole British values thing on in a meaningful and valuable way. They started to genuinely explore the idea in open and positive collaboration with their students, examining the four main values through research, debate and creative work.
And what was the main message that students seemed to be taking away with them time after time, lesson after lesson? It was tolerance, it was an appreciation of others and the very welcoming and “British” ethos of our own urban and integrated places of learning.
I was truly inspired by the way that teachers, in their ever-ingenious way, had taken something and squeezed the very best out of it. This positive ingenuity is a value that is certainly found in our British colleges, and it is one that I will gladly take on as a British value myself.
Janette Thompson is an FE practitioner at an FE college in the East Midlands @EnglishFECoach