So, what are these 'British values', then?

Picture of Michael Wilshaw, a white man wearing a dark suit, accompanied by a middle-aged female teacher in a yellow coat and skirt, watching a lesson through a glass screen.I’m a bit late in writing about this, as I’ve been working long hours the past two weeks during which the Ofsted report into a number of Birmingham schools supposedly targeted by a conspiracy to turn them into Muslim schools by the back door was released and several of them were put into special measures, having previously been classified as outstanding. This past week, one of the governing bodies resigned en masse, and on Thursday it was reported that new government rules will require new academies and ‘free schools’ to abide by so-called fundamental British values, which include “respect for the law, democracy, equality and tolerance of different faiths and religious and other beliefs”, and enable the education secretary to close a school or dismiss governors if he deems them “unsuitable” if his conduct undermines these values. Meanwhile, former prime minister Tony Blair claimed that both the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria and the supposed Birmingham plot stemmed from the same “warped and abusive view of the religion”.

It’s remarkable that Michael Gove’s list of fundamental British values makes no mention of learning or erudition. Now that Ofsted found all the faults in these schools, among them that they did not engage with the PREVENT programme or guard pupils against the dangers of extremism (and some of these were primary schools!), some of the complaints about Ofsted centre on their over-emphasis on academic achievements rather than on promoting personal development or community cohesion. Park View Academy, in particular, was rated outstanding in 2012 and had made enormous efforts to improve standards since being in special measures in the early 2000s. Good schools with high academic achievements are fundamental to keeping the peace and bringing alienated religious communities on side. While it’s true that extremist networks have recruited in universities and some students (including some high-achieving ones) have become involved in terrorism, academic achievement and the economic opportunities it brings protect young people from becoming involved in crime and gang culture, and they stem the disaffection that leads to riots as we saw in 2001. And in this day and age, people do not need to be at university to have access to the Internet (as was the case for most people in the mid-90s); pretty much every drop-out has a smartphone and if they’re that way inclined, they can download all the jihadi videos they like and link up with “the brothers” on social media. Lectures about the dangers of extremism at school (easily dismissed as propaganda) will not be as valuable as academic and economic opportunities in keeping young people out of trouble.

Tony Blair’s comparison of Muslims trying to make their local schools compatible with their values with the depredations of Boko Haram in Nigeria or the Taliban’s attacks on girls’ education in Afghanistan and more recently Pakistan is fatuous and offensive. If you go to any university in England you will find scores of young women wearing hijab, and the same is true of secondary schools in Muslim areas, including Birmingham. While it is true that some parents still take their children (particularly daughters) out of school and send them ‘back home’ to marry, there is still a large proportion who want their daughters to get a good education and, if not to enter a professional job, then to be able to educate her children effectively. The complaints about boys and girls being separated in some instances in a mixed school are also misplaced, given that many schools (including most of the élite ‘public’ schools) are single-sex, and that many mixed schools have separate boys’ and girls’ playgrounds, or at least have done in the recent past (including the Catholic primary school I went to as a child, where boys and girls were allowed to have nothing to do with each other outside class, though this may have changed since then).

A page from the Magna Carta (with some modern ballpoint writing over it).Gove’s insistence on teaching the “values enshrined in the Magna Carta” demonstrates his historical illiteracy. Other democracies have written constitutions with robust bills of rights that protect freedom of speech and religion and the right to due process and even to family life; the best he can come up with is an 800-year-old document signed by an absolute monarch, prevailed on by feudal barons in a country where a large proportion of the population were serfs, something the document did nothing to change, and all but three of whose clauses have been repealed in the last two centuries. Of the parts still in force, one states that “the Church of England shall be free”; this of course refers to the then English part of the Catholic church, something which subsequent monarchs interfered with forcefully, changing its doctrine and abolishing its link to the Papacy. Another clause still in force preserves the “old Liberties and Customs” of the City of London, which today preserves its anachronistic form of local government, while the remaining extant clause (number 29) establishes what we now call Due Process, which is really the sole clause that is relevant to our times. However, while it is certainly a positive development that people could not be imprisoned or deprived of property without the due process of law, it does not provide protection from discrimination and from unjust laws that some modern constitutions provide. At the same time, the Tories seek to repeal the Human Rights Act which provides some of these safeguards, using their press to whisper to the white middle classes that only troublemakers need rights and that all it does is enrich fat-cat lawyers.

While there were some wrong things happening at some of the Birmingham schools that were criticised by Ofsted (notably the school trip to Saudi Arabia which, of course, only Muslim pupils at a nominally secular school could go on), much of it seems to consist of some baseless claims, attacks on legitimate cultural differences (such as the absence of tombolas at a school fair on grounds of gambling) and some things which are perfectly legitimate when non-Muslims do them. That the investigation involved a police officer previously known for anti-terrorism work, an entirely disproportionate response (especially at a time when people try to blame Muslims every time something goes bang, as with the bus fire in London yesterday), shows that the government regards any incident where Muslims assert themselves to be a matter of national security. All of this is being used to destabilise a group of good schools (and this happened just as GCSE exams were being taken), because giving an uppity community a knock over the head is more important than engaging them or providing a route out of the ghetto (if you can call it that; many would not) for those who want one. The values he talks of are just mid-market tabloid fodder; he is harking back to the feudal past, threatening to strip away rights while strengthening the hand of the rich and powerful. It will not only be Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities that are sidelined in Gove’s Little England, but anyone who is poor, disabled or otherwise vulnerable. Stuff the Magna Carta; this is not 13th-century feudal England. We need a modern bill of rights for a modern society.

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