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A year ago, on 27th November 2014, the British Department for Education launched its non-statutory guidance calling for schools to actively promote ‘Fundamental British Values’ as part of pupils’ Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural education in schools, the values in question being “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. Promoting fundamental British values, the guidance continues, requires “challenging opinions or behaviours in school that are contrary to fundamental British values”.
This attempt to promote British values in schools defines ‘Britishness’ and what the community of British citizens is through cultural and ideological means.  It goes beyond strictly legal categories of nation state citizenship through reference to a shared set of values, and the categories, people, narratives, symbols and actions that symbolise these values. Good Britons uphold these values, those who do not are somehow deemed not fully part of the national community, whatever their legal citizenship status.

Educators in the past have similarly recognised that schools provide an unrivalled opportunity to reach a captive audience of young people who are obliged to be there for five days a week for much of the year, and to shape their ideas of what being British means. Many elementary school teaching and reading books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (not centrally prescribed but designed to meet the needs of a government-defined curriculum) associated Britishness with democracy and fairness, and other markers such as Christianity and the Anglo Saxon Race,[1]though the long-standing assumption among historians that Britishness meant Englishness rather than anything else is now being questioned. ‘Britain’ in these texts included her vast Empire, but the way that Britishness was defined ensured that full British citizenship was denied to the heathens and the ‘backward races’ living in imperial territories overseas.

If this notion of the Briton as Anglo-Saxon and Christian had some purchase (not all historians think it did, Jonathan Rose notably questions how far these and other apparently hegemonic messages were taken on),[2]we could also suggest that citizenship in terms of values and cultural meaning was denied to agnostics or atheists within Great Britain itself. The non-believers who gathered together within secularist groups such as the Ethical Movement, London Positivist Society and the National Secular Society, therefore, defined British values as they should apply to pupils in schools in broader, more inclusive terms.

The Moral Instruction League, for example, a pressure group formed in 1897, argued that a carefully designed syllabus of ‘non-theological’ moral lessons in schools would ensure that pupils acquired the knowledge, values and behaviours that they would need as future citizens of the British state. The League, for over 20 years, questioned the widespread assumption that this citizenship must rest on Christian foundations. Britain, the League suggested, and also the larger empire, contained many citizens who were not Christian, so a moral code which could appeal to people of any or no religious creed, rather than a Christian one, was the only just, fair and truly democratic foundation of ‘British’ values. League activists had themselves, as secularists, encountered a range of barriers including blocked employment opportunities and work duties, eviction from meeting premises, even violence in public places. They were fully aware of what defining British citizenship in purely Christian terms could mean for those who were British but not Christian.

But was their moral code as universal as they hoped? Lessons on the theme of ‘democracy’, penned by League activists AJ Waldegrave and FJ Gould in their handbooks for teachers, advocate political participation for all and not just an elite, and better wages and living conditions for the poor. This was not the Whiggish story of the Magna Carta leading eventually to the constitution of parliament and to greater glory found in other texts of the period: Waldegrave and Gould did not ignore this story, but felt it was not enough. The potential for controversy was greatest when texts touched on religion and religious tolerance. Gould, in a lesson on ‘Differences of Opinion’ in his Children’s Book of Moral Lessons, suggested that atheists and adherents of all world religions should be ‘saluted’ alongside Christians – this lesson was singled out for vilification in the national and educational press. The good Briton, for Gould, would salute all these people, the good Briton, for his critics, would not. A common, unifying language of values could mask deeper ideological differences which could be revealed in the context of actual texts and lessons.[3]

Others have questioned whether it should be the place of schools to promote fundamental British value as the Department for Education suggests. My argument, on the basis of historical example, is that we should also ask how successfully they can do so. Firstly, identifying particular values as British means that as well as including those who supposedly uphold these values, those who do not can be left beyond the boundaries of the ‘imagined community’, as opposed to the strictly legal community, of British citizens. Secondly, the values identified as British – democracy, liberty, tolerance – all emerge as subject to very different definitions – perhaps an obvious point but a fundamental one if they are meant to serve a unifying function. And if not applicable to all Britons can any scheme of values to be taught in schools be fundamentally British?


[1] S. Heathorn, “Let Us Remember That We, Too, Are English”: Constructions of Citizenship and National Identity in English Elementary School Reading Books, 1880-1914, Victorian Studies, 38:3, 1995, 395-427.
[2] J. Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, 2nd edition, Newhaven and London: Yale University Press, 2010 especially pp.1-11.
[3] S. Wright, ‘Our future citizens’: values in late nineteenth and early twentieth century moral instruction books’, History of Education and Children’s Literature, 4:1, 2009, 157-77.