Growing up in Britain as an Asian child, I was always perplexed as to where I belonged. Whenever I visited my motherland I was labelled as ‘Engleesay’, meaning English girl, which was funny because that is the last thing I would be referred to as back home here. Here the label I most associate with is Asian British. Although, the label itself is somewhat difficult to define, it is clear to me that I can still retain my Asian ethnicity and belong in Britain. Therefore, the concept of “Fundamental British Values” at the heart of the Prevent strategy jar with me, as they have with many others.
In July 2011, Theresa May, our then Secretary of State for the Home Department, defined the purpose of the Prevent Strategy as “a plan to prevent radicalisation and stop would-be terrorists from committing mass murder” because “experience tells us that the threat comes not just from foreign nationals but also from terrorists born and bred in Britain”.
The term ‘extremist’ in the Prevent Strategy is defined as having “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” Thus, work to deal with radicalisation and non-violent extremism will depend on developing a sense of belonging to this country and support of these core values. And what better way is there to do this than by placing a duty on schools to do whatever is possible in the exercise of their function to prevent students from being drawn into terrorism? Prevent was then introduced as a statutory duty for schools through the Counterterrorism and Security Act in 2015.
All schools are assessed on this statutory duty by Ofsted, with some of criteria based on students’ Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) development and the extent to which teaching related to this (often in PSHE lessons) promotes Fundamental British Values. Students should be able to demonstrate the ability to be reflective about their own beliefs and the beliefs of those around them, recognise legal boundaries, have respect for the law, and should portray an attitude that shows a willingness to participate and contribute positively to life in modern Britain.
At a recent panel discussion about British Values that I attended as part of the UCL Festival of Culture, teachers spoke about the contradictions involved in this new area of their work. Because it is a statutory duty, as well as being included in the 2012 revised Teachers’ Standards, teachers are legally bound not to undermine British Values and, for example, have to produce lesson plans as evidence to Ofsted as to how they are meeting this new duty. The speakers on the panel, which included early-career teachers, experienced teachers and education academics, highlighted the challenges that teachers face in deciding between planning interactive lessons that will enable students to have open discussions – reflecting the values of democracy and individual liberty – or restricting them to paper based work in order to produce written evidence that they are fulfilling their legal obligations.
Furthermore, teachers are conflicted over the balance between allowing students to confidently express their views and the anxiety that, under the Prevent strategy, they may have to report things that students have said or, indeed, not said. The authorities have emphasised that the programme is not used as a means for covert spying on people or communities. However, a third of referrals under the Prevent strategy in its first year of enforcement came from teachers, with reports that some were referring students for fear of recrimination if they did not spot signs of risk.
The recent Safeguarding and Radicalisation research report has suggested that most of these referrals have been “overzealous and inappropriate, leading to unnecessary time consuming assessments and creating problems with families”. Some teachers feel that they are not acting as educators in those lessons, but rather as enforcement officers or spies. Nonetheless, despite these concerns, Amber Rudd, our current Home Secretary, has made it clear recently that Prevent is ‘here to stay’.
In addition, teachers and education academics spoke about their discomfort in referring to these values as ‘British’ because values like democracy, rule of law and tolerance exist in so many societies. We often hear extremist groups such as IS and Al-Qaeda, condemning Muslims living in the West for integrating into Western societies, they propagate the belief that people cannot be both Muslim and British, creating a divide of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Funnily enough though, by labelling the values as ‘British’ we are adapting that very mind-set. Creating a sense of ‘them and us’, alienating students and making them feel as if they need to compromise their ethnic identities to become ‘British’. Calling them ‘British’ values in a multicultural, multiracial society is to deny other ethnicity and cultural histories that intrinsically share these values.
Undoubtedly, the values of democracy, rule of law, self-liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for all faiths, are fundamental and should be taught in our schools. But they are not just ‘British’ values. They are human values.