A critical examination of the duty to promote and protect Fundamental British Values (FBV) in education.

The promotion of British values in schools is a rather contentious issue, not least because teachers are legally obligated to promote and protect ‘fundamental British values’ (FBVs) (DfE,2014,p.5). I witnessed this in practice, whilst working as a Learning Support Assistant, where a Year 7 English class was explicitly taught about Britishness as an independent scheme of work (SOW). Deeply traditional British imagery was ubiquitously employed throughout these lessons (such as the Union Jack, Big Ben and Churchill) and students were directed to reflect upon and discuss the meaning of Britishness – which ultimately led to stereotypical conversations about the importance of tea, football, the monarchy and empire. This narrow conception of Britishness was unchallenged by the teacher which greatly disconcerted me.

As an indigenous British national, I saw this as an unbalanced conception of Britishness since the SOW failed to highlight values representative of my own views on Britishness (including multiculturalism, tolerance, freedom of speech and democracy). If the objective of the SOW was to enable people to better understand what Britishness means or to help them identify with the British community, then for me it had failed. What concerned me more was that over a quarter of the class were not of British heritage. I wondered: if I had found it difficult to relate to the narrow conception of Britishness prevalent in those lessons, some students had probably found it difficult too. Surely, I thought, teachers should attempt to challenge narrow conceptions of Britishness in order to make such lessons relatable and accessible to all students.

This is what sparked my interest in FBVs. I began asking myself questions, such as:

What truly is ‘Britishness’?
What are British values?
Do the British people share a homogenous set of values?
Are British values not just universal values?
Why and how was this legal obligation to promote and protect FBVs introduced?
Is the project to promote and protect FBVs self-defeating?

This essay is concerned with these final two questions. Specifically, by understanding the pretext for the introduction of FBVs and teachers’ legal obligation to promote and protect them, I aim to understand in what ways the policy surrounding FBVs might be – or at least appear to be – self-defeating. Furthermore, if they are self-defeating, I wish to examine whether teachers are necessarily hindered in their practices as a result. 

There is a plethora of ways to explore the question of whether the project of FBVs is self-defeating. Nevertheless, here we will address just two. The first concerns whether FBVs are intended to be inclusive. As will be revealed, there are strong reasons to believe that they are. Yet, I will argue that there is a risk that FBVs can appear to merely feign rather than embody inclusion. Secondly, I wish to highlight how the broad advice on how to promote and protect FBVs may conflict with the specific duty to promote and protect democracy – for, democracy is one of the FBVs (Ofsted,2018,pp.42). We begin, however, by looking at why and how FBVs and teachers’ legal obligation to promote and protect them were introduced.

The Pretext for the Introduction of FBVs
It appears that a change in the British political landscape was instrumental to the introduction of FBVs. Britain’s involvement in the USA’s ‘War on Terror’ in the early 2000s arguably helped to institutionalise a politics of anti-terrorism and securitisation (Kapoor,2013,p.1029) which can be seen to have catalysed a notable shift in UK public policy concerns away from what was called ‘state multiculturalism’[1] (Holmwood & O’Toole,2018,pp.6-7). Later, in 2011, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, claimed that “state multiculturalism […] encouraged different cultures to live separate lives […] apart from the mainstream” and in order to “belong” in Britain one must believe in “certain values”, values which Cameron believed were not shared by some ethnic minority groups (Cameron,2011)[2]. These values were subsequently defined in Britain’s anti-extremism Prevent Strategy as “fundamental British values” (FBVs) within its definition of ‘extremism’, which itself was defined as “vocal or active opposition” to FBVs (Crown,2011,p.107).

Fundamental British Values (FBVs):

  • Democracy;
  • The rule of law;
  • Individual liberty; and
  • Mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

Shortly after, from September of 2012 the new Teachers Standards required teachers to protect FBVs (DfE,2011,p.14)[3]. Subsequently, the politics of anti-terrorism and securitisation was further proliferated by national and international incidents of terrorism, the growth of notorious terrorist organisations and the so-called Trojan Horse Affair in 2014 (Lander,2016,p.275). Consequently, the DfE published non-statutory advice relating to the promotion of FBVs as a part of social, moral, spiritual and cultural (SMSC) development in schools (DfE,2014).

[1] A multicultural state or society, or a state that advocates being multicultural.

[2] Here is an excerpt which shows this: “What I am about to say is drawn from the British experience, but I believe there are general lessons for us all.  In the UK, some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practised at home by their parents, whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries.  But these young men also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity.  Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.  We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.  We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.” (Cameron,2011).

[3] “Teachers uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour, within and outside school, by: … not undermining fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” (DfE,2011,p.14).

Feigning Inclusion
As we shall see, there are elements of the pretext of FBVs which could cause us to believe that they might be self-defeating. By drawing upon some of those elements my central claim within this section is that if FBVs are intended to be inclusive, then they risk appearing to feign inclusion rather than embodying it. This is because some of the history surrounding education policies concerning Britain’s minority groups, as well as some aspects of the pretext for the introduction of teachers’ obligation to promote and protect FBVs, can appear to be racist. I will focus on the government’s treatment of the Swan Report of 1985 and then on the Trojan Horse Affair of 2014 as two illustrative cases.  

According to Robin Richardson, in the late-1980s central government sought to “de-emphasize and marginalize the conclusions and recommendations of the Swann Report” (Richardson,2015,p.38) which identified a distinct need in schools for “change where attitudes to the ethnic minorities are concerned” and that a “[m]ulticultural understanding… [ought] to permeate all aspects of a school’s work” (Swann,1985,pp.767-769). In support of its marginalisation, Beverley Shaw argued that an education founded on “universal tolerance and understanding” would fail to respect its students’ social, ethnic or religious identities “for such an education cannot of its nature reinforce home and family values” without creating the social divisions it is intended to repair (Shaw,1988,p.258). However, one might contend that Shaw’s reasoning is flawed because (A) it is mistaken about the role that schools have with respect to reinforcing home and family values (or, as I will term them, ‘cultural values’); and, more importantly, (B) the rationale by which that mistaken role is assumed can appear to be (and may even be) racist.

With respect to (A), Shaw’s argument could be invalidated if one believed that schools have no role in necessarily reinforcing (viz. instructing on) cultural values but rather have a role in educating on (viz. informing on, revealing, or modelling) them. The process of reinforcing certain cultural values may, indeed, involve excluding other cultural values since it would necessitate being selective when deciding which to reinforce[4]. Hence, as Shaw remarks, in a culturally plural school setting, reinforcing cultural values might almost necessarily fail to respect some students’ identities. Conversely, the process of educating on cultural values has the potential to succeed in respecting all students’ identities because it is not as restricted by ideas concerning prescriptivity[5]. Accordingly, Shaw is mistaken in repudiating the Swann Report on the belief that the kind of education it recommended fails to respect its students’ identities, for that need not be the case if one believes schools have a role in educating on cultural values rather than reinforcing them.  

[4] For reinforcing all of the world’s cultural values would be impossible.

[5] I say ‘potential’ because, despite it being logically possible that all cultural values are respected, some cultural values may still be perceived as unworthy of respecting.

Importantly, concerning (B), some people might view the kind of rationale employed by Shaw as racist. The assumption that education ought to reinforce certain cultural values arguably entails the implicit premise that there exists a specific set of cultural values – rather than ‘universal’ values – which is inherently superior to others, including those of resident ethnic minorities, and is thus more deserving of being reinforced. It is these kinds of attitudes and “inherited myths” with which the Swann Report was concerned (Swann,1985,p.769) – attitudes purporting that ethnic minority cultures and their respective values are inherently inferior to those of the mainstream culture. Furthermore, it is beyond mere speculation to suggest that many people would qualify such attitudes as racist. Hence, if the central government’s move in the late-1980s to de-emphasise and marginalise the recommendations of the Swann Report was seen to be decided upon reasoning equivalent or similar to that of Shaw’s, it could quite conceivably be considered by some as a racist move.

The government’s marginalisation of the Swann Report is just one example of how racism might be seen to be present in the history surrounding education policies. For those concerned with the possibility that its marginalisation was racist, the question for today is: is it possible that FBVs were conceived on the back of similar attitudes to those which ostensibly denounced the Swann Report?

At first glance, the answer is potentially yes. For, FBVs are identified by their title as being distinctly ‘British’ values, suggesting that they are cultural values unique to Britain. Thus, it could be claimed that FBVs are racist, in a way similar to the allegation made against Shaw in (B), by “implying that Britain is somehow better and more civilised than other countries” (NASUWT,2016,p.6). This would explain why teachers are duty-bound to promote and protect FBVs and why the government defined ‘extremism’ as “vocal or active opposition” to FBVs (Crown,2011,p.107).

However, it would be unfair to cry ‘racism!’ too quickly. For, upon looking at the individual values which constitute FBVs it becomes clear that they are “certainly not unique to Britain” (NASUWT,2016,p.6). For, democracy (FBV1); the rule of law (FBV2); individual liberty (FBV3); and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith (FBV4) are all values held in multiple countries and cultures worldwide. Therefore, to prevent people from mistaking FBVs as uniquely British values, moreover to prevent “alienation and division”, it would be prudent to understand FBVs as ‘Universal Values’ (NASUWT,2016,p.6). So, perhaps despite their name, FBVs were not devised from racist attitudes since they appear to embody Universal Values – values which are not exclusive to Britain.

Further evidencing that FBVs were not devised from racist attitudes, in the Department for Education’s advice for promoting FBVs in practice they state, “[i]t is not necessary for schools or individuals to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with their own, but nor is it acceptable for schools to promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background” (DfE,2014,p.6). This embodies FBV4 and it is an example of how the promotion of FBVs is intended to be inclusive, qua respectful for and tolerant of those with different faiths and beliefs, in practice.

The problem with this is that there is a risk that those who might view the kind of rationale employed by Shaw as racist may thus see FBV4 as an ad-hoc attempt at making FBVs seem more inclusive when in reality they are not. This contention could be inspired or compounded by the pretext for the introduction of FBVs and teachers’ obligation to promote and protect them, since it appears to encourage differential treatment of minority groups (Strathers,2017,p.100), contradicting FBV4. This, according to Richardson, is because “the discourse of politicians […] implies that a central purpose of teaching British values is to control and regulate young Muslims” (Richardson,2015,p.45). The Trojan Horse Affair exemplifies this allegation: In March 2014 the Sunday Times reported on a Muslim plot to take over the governing bodies of a collection of Birmingham schools (Richardson,2015,p.39). Soon after, the national press was fuelled by headlines warning of Islamic extremists, fundamentalism and a “Jihadist plot to take over schools” (Richardson,2015,p.40; quoting the Birmingham Mail on 7th March 2014), now referred to as the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair. The document alleged as proof of this plot was a forgery (Richardson,2015,p.40). Yet, well before any state-led investigations were able to make this official conclusion – moreover, before hearings from teachers of the implicated schools were conducted – the government cited the Trojan Horse Affair as justification for its new plans to counter extremism (Holmwood & O’Toole,2018,p.16). The introduction of the aforementioned obligation conferred upon teachers to promote FBVs as a part of SMSC development in schools constituted an element of these plans. Hence, the treatment of Muslims in this case (and the potential perception that they were scapegoated for political ends) could be considered by some as amounting to “a betrayal of the very values that the teachers in the Birmingham [Trojan Horse Affair] case are held to have disavowed” (Holmewood & O’Toole,2018,p.20), those being the fundamental British values – especially FBV4.

So, it is possible that FBVs were conceived on the back of similar attitudes to those which possibly inspired the marginalisation of the Swann Report. It is because of this that FBVs risk appearing to feign inclusion rather than embodying it. Teachers are encouraged to be inclusive in their practice, to embody and model FBV4 (DfE,2014,p.6), yet at times, both in the past and with respect to pertinent recent events, the central British government appear to have actively contradicted FBV4.

Be that as it may, I would argue that the practice of promoting and protecting FBV4 is not necessarily undermined by these events. For, even if FBVs were devised with racist intent, this need not have any impact upon the practices of a teacher when promoting and protecting them. The teacher can, regardless of recent history, protect and promote “mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith”, by educating on FBVs. Furthermore, rethinking FBVs as Universal Values could help to prevent any conflation between narrow stereotypical conceptions of Britishness with values education and help teachers consider their obligation to promote and protect FBVs in a more inclusive fashion (NASUWT,2016,p.6), in line with FBV4.

Subverting Democracy
However, an element of teaching practices relating to the promotion and protection of democracy (FBV1) which could be seen as self-defeating concerns the non-statutory advice relating to the promotion of FBVs as a part of SMSC. This advice instructs teachers to “enable students” to “respect the civil and criminal law of England”, “to acquire a […] respect for public institutions and services in England” and to “encourage respect for the basis on which the law is made and applied in England” (DfE,2014,p.5). However, practitioners may have reservations “concerning the appropriateness of teaching students to respect public institutions and the Laws of […] England when a key element of critical and empowering education should arguably be that they are equipped with the capacities to challenge the state and its actions” (Struthers,2016,pp.98-99; referencing Goodwin,2014). This could be argued on the basis that a state’s citizens must have the capacity to take properly informed democratic action to safeguard themselves against the state and other powerful entities, such as when those entities threaten Human Rights or contradict FBVs, which requires that its citizens hold a degree of scepticism with respect to the state. In short, democracy necessitates having a degree of freedom not to respect the state. Arguably, therefore, by instructing teachers to encourage students to respect the state, the DfE’s guidance regarding the promotion and protection of democracy (FBV1) is potentially self-defeating.

That being said, teachers could reinterpret the DfE’s advice to avoid this. Teachers may, for instance, reinterpret ‘enabling students to respect’ the civil and criminal law of England as meaning that they ought to enable and encourage their students to abide by the civil and criminal law of England. For, abiding by laws need not necessitate respecting them. Hence, through reinterpreting the DfE’s instructions, it is possible that democracy can be promoted and protected by teachers in practice in a way that is not self-defeating.

Yet, another way in which the practice of promoting FBVs could be seen to contradict democracy relates to how FBVs are promoted. If promoting FBVs equates to reinforcing them, just as Shaw assumed teachers should do, then there is a danger that an allegation could be made stating that the promotion of FBVs is merely a political tool to nationalistically indoctrinate students. Having said that, if it is believed that the process by which FBVs are promoted equates to educating on them, then this allegation might be quashed. Fortunately, it is possible to infer from the DfE’s advice that the latter method is preferred. This is because the language within their description of “the understanding and knowledge expected of pupils as a result of schools promoting fundamental British values” appears to connote an educating on approach when it states that students should have “an understanding” of democracy or “an appreciation” for the rule of law and other such things which characterise FBVs (DfE,2014,pp.5-6). Conversely, if it had stated rather more obstinately that students “must believe” in democracy and the rule of law, then we could potentially infer that it connotes a reinforcing approach to promoting FBVs.

Concluding Remarks
So, whilst the guidance on how to promote FBVs could be seen to be self-defeating by potentially (perhaps unwittingly) encouraging practices which could arguably subvert democracy, teachers are able to interpret the guidance such that democracy is nonetheless promoted and protected in their practice. Furthermore, we can infer from the language of the guidance that teachers can achieve this by educating on FBVs rather than reinforcing them.     

Similarly, whilst some history concerning education policies and elements of the pretext for the introduction of FBVs and teachers’ obligation to promote and protect them might be seen to be racist and thus undermine FBV4, the FBVs, through being in essence Universal Values, are not themselves racist. Therefore, teachers are able to promote and protect FBVs without undermining them, again by educating on them.

A.C. Stark


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8 responses to “A critical examination of the duty to promote and protect Fundamental British Values (FBV) in education.”

  1. […] place where non-white British communities are expected to adopt British values and characteristics (a dubious concept to say the least) and repress all desires to embrace their cultural heritage. This is the evil of white normativity, […]


  2. […] the Black Lives Matter movement and legendise undeserving colonialist figures, squabble over the ostensibly unique characteristics of ‘Britishness’, or procrastinate on climate change; but which they tacitly embrace as they sip their Kenya-grown […]


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  7. This interesting and well informed article just goes to highlight what a minefield this subject actually is and how very muddled the political thinking is around it. Hardly surprising, given that the legislation and requirements for it to be brought into the classroom is entirely reactive after certain terrorist activity…

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