Charlie Hebdo, Ofsted and British Values: time to pause for thought?

Posted January 9th, 2015 in Blog by admin

The attack on those working for the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is an undoubted outrage, the implications of which will reverberate well beyond France. Centre-stage have been, and will continue to be, questions of values. The front pages of national newspapers across Europe focus on the value of freedom, variously referring to “an attack on freedom”, “a war on freedom”, and, with a cursory translation, “la liberté assassinée” (‘freedom murdered’). A more nuanced interpretation might remind us that English speakers employ the word liberty also and, as Isiah Berlin’s argued in: ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, essentially these intimate both ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’.

‘Freedom’ has an individualist ring, as might be said of ‘liberty’. So independence and intellectual enrichment fit easily. But Berlin’s wider analysis helps us more precisely locate these and the other values articulated in recent days. Take openness and democratic debate (indeed, The Guardian’s leader was entitled ‘An assault on democracy’). Here Berlin’s provocation broadens the debate beyond individual values and reminds us of social dimensions. Thankfully, we have had something of this from those who have sought to extol the values of pluralism and diversity, no doubt fearing a backlash against Muslim communities. This individual – social dynamic needs unpacking.

The French trinity of fundamental values, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, are well-known. But the tensions between them are rarely explored. Liberty, narrowly defined as ‘freedom to’, sits in uneasy tension with equality. The lives of the inhabitants of ‘les banlieues’ (the impoverished suburbs so powerfully depicted in the film La Haine) bear testament to this, given the grievous inequalities, in education, employment, and so on, in evidence in these places.

And yet these inequalities are worse still in the UK, identified recently as the most unequal country in the Western world. Which suggests pause for thought about the values that dominate here. If Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité are French values, what of ‘British Values’, and the implications of this recent narrative in education? It’s instructive to compare the Ofsted version with that of the DfE. Ofsted identifies: ‘democracy’; ‘the rule of law’, ‘individual liberty’ and ‘mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’ as fundamental British Values. The DfE offers more detail:

  • respect for democracy and support for participation in the democratic process
  • respect for the basis on which the law is made and applies in England
  • support for equality of opportunity for all
  • support and respect for the liberties of all within the law
  • respect for and tolerance of different faiths and religious and other beliefs

The keen-eyed might note that the DfE add an extra element, namely: “support for equality of opportunity for all”. Our pause might be usefully used to compare this with the narrative in France. At first glance there seems little difference between equality and equality of opportunity. But further examination shows us something more profound exists. Whilst a commitment to equality has been a cornerstone of our political history we can say at least there has been a drift in devotion to this aim and the egalitarianism it suggests. The rise of the narrative of ‘equality of opportunity’ seems based on a consensus that the inequalities inevitably generated by a market-based system are a price worth paying for the benefits accrued from that system. These negative effects are considered acceptable given we seek to mitigate them by creating opportunities for all to succeed – therein the emphasis on meritocracy. In essence, each shall have a good (and equal) start and, thereafter, it’s an individual’s lookout. Some will struggle (even fail), and others will succeed – and society will be the better for it.

It was dear-old Boris Johnson who elucidated this rationale in a manner only he can. Here’s my edited version, although his full speech can be read here: “I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”

Johnson recognises the decline in social mobility however advocates more of the same. He articulates not only this perceived consensus: “the free market economy is the only show in town” but appreciates the effect of it: “No one can ignore the harshness of that competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates.” And he seems clear on the root causes also; it’s not the system but the “human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability.” He sees society as a “cornflake packet” which, when shaken, means those with higher IQs will inevitably rise to the top and, with “assortative mating”, increase the advantage of their offspring.  Promoting equality of opportunity involves ‘shaking the packet’ through policies like the sale of council houses.

So, let me reject the guidance that expressly demands schools “challenge pupils, staff or parents who express opinions contrary to British Values”. I want to say, at the very least, I find this emphasis on equality of opportunity deeply problematic, even if it represents a contrary opinion. It’s shameful that we have become so unequal, and treat the consequences of this as mere ‘collateral damage’.

Allow me a thought experiment: if, on the basis of the prescription to promote British values, schools are to support equality of opportunity for all (and bearing in mind that Ofsted can fail a school if they do not) might it be implied, bearing in mind the government’s own admission that social mobility has stalled, that schools risk the wrath of inspectors where they do not teach criticism of the state? How mad is that?

Of course, France is as bad; there is the ever-present tension between liberté and égalité. But, at least they are prepared to use the word ‘equality’. Note also the French refer only to exclusion, and never to social inclusion, which is ubiquitous in policy language here. Social inclusion suggests having the power to include, whereas its absence implies all are included by right. Likewise, you’re unlikely to hear much of ‘social and community cohesion’ in France; these too have a sense of desperation about them, as if dreamed up to mitigate the divisive effects of inequality. Fraternité is the French way; it offers a sense of solidarity and unity (which we’ve also heard a lot of these last few days). And belonging, of feeling that one is participating in the same ideal. To my mind, these values are good, it’s just a shame that, as in the case of the banlieues, they’re often absent.

My confidence in this critique is bolstered also by a value that Charlie Hebdo epitomised: contrariness. I reject being told its unreasonable (and against ‘British Values’) to argue the contrary. This is undoubtedly a need of the satirist, but we can speculate this disposition follows in a long educational tradition, as exemplified by Socrates (noting full well what happened to him). Which hopefully take us to a place where some progress is possible. In a strange way, this might be stimulated by the guidance issued to schools to “promote respect for democracy and support for participation in the democratic process”. Amongst other pronouncements, it’s suggested we should:

  • Teach pupils how they can influence decision-making through the democratic process
  • Encourage them to become involved in these processes and ensure they are listened to in school
  • Teach the advantages and disadvantages of democracy
  • Help them express their views and learn how to argue and defend these points of view
  • Model how perceived injustice can be peacefully challenged.

The vehicles for achieving these aims are identified as “the development of critical personal thinking skills” and “modelling freedom of speech through pupil participation and promoting critical analysis of evidence.” Beyond wondering why these skills are seen as individual (when, typically, it is our enquiry with others – a social process – that provides the essential stimulus to engage with differing perspectives) we might ask if these mechanisms are bold enough. Certainly they don’t appear as bold as education populaire in France (and beyond), where it’s considered reasonable to actively encourage contestation and dissent in order to advance democracy. Nor in Community Philosophy.

It would seem reasonable then to doubt if these values can be taught as part of a curriculum (which has echoes of earlier failed attempts at teaching citizenship). Rather, as Malcolm Trobe, of the Association of School and College Leaders (ACSL), says: “The best way for schools to instil such values in pupils is to reflect them in the way the institution is run. Schools have to embody it [democracy] in the way they work and within the ethos and culture of the school – within a framework of rules, regulations which are there for the benefit of everyone. It’s not just a question of sitting and teaching children about it.”

His colleague, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) echoes a note of cynicism: “Values are an important issue within the education system, but what are they? Liberty, freedom, democracy? – but I think these are universal values as much as they are British.” And points to the irony that: “They’re never thought through, never debated.” Nigel Giddens, speaking on behalf of the Church of England, agrees: “British values should emanate from a broad public conversation, not from the secretary of state”.

Jacqueline Baxter, lecturer in social policy at the OU, goes further, fearing the “introduction of a responsibility for schools to promote “British values” and the apparent conflation of religious conservativism with extremism by both government and the media is riddled with ideological and political complexities.” Baxter speaks of the “new values police”: “the apparent appropriation of values by the state is a worrying trend. More worrying still is how Ofsted is being used to police these values. It also risks transforming schools from being trusted institutions at the heart of their communities into organisations undermined by suspicion, doubt and a panopticon-like scrutiny. This is more likely to give rise to the very activities that both government and inspectorate are so eager to expunge. To avoid this we need a public debate about the human values that form the core of our society. Until this happens, the grey area around these “British values” is open to mis-interpretation, political manipulation and false assumptions. That may well cause repercussions which could fundamentally undermine our system of education.” Once again, this is an argument in favour of process rather than instruction.

Of course it’s a further irony that these values (and practices) are often associated with the progressivism of the 1960s and 1970s – an educational era so often ridiculed by politicians. This irony is compounded by the reality today of a system where ‘outcomes’ are increasingly pre-scribed. We might ask: how is it we know what will come out of a lesson unless we actively disregard the thoughts, opinions and actions of pupils within that lesson? This casts doubt on the so-often stated commitment to ‘pupil voice’ and ‘student participation’, which seems essential if these values are to take hold. Perhaps this is little more than empty rhetoric, a series of language games designed to paper over the cracks of an ideological framework that focusses on the economic activation of our children and pays scant regard for anything democratic.

Returning to Charlie Hebdo, we should note that one of the victims was Bernard Maris, an economist and journalist. Like many of his peers at the magazine, he was stridently anti-globalisation. He was a former scientific advisor to Attac, the international movement working for social, environmental and democratic alternatives to the globalisation process. This might give us further pause for thought. Indeed, engaging in the critical thinking exemplified by these people, and suggested by the enlightened interpreters of ‘British Values’, might just be the best of ways to honour and remember the many who have suffered in challenging those who abuse their power. Lest we forget, it is the role of the satirical cartoonist – and a progressive education – to explore and point out hypocrisy.

In the coming days we will continue to be treated to the voices of the powerful who seek to instruct us in values and yet whose behaviour, in presiding over growing inequality, reveals their own impoverished moral codes. They would do well to heed the words of  Nora Hamadi, whose own upbringing made her appreciate the reality and effect of poor access to public services, education or employment: “In the late 80s the most important problem [in the banlieues] was heroin, now its radicalism.” In protecting society, and building a good society, there is much to do.

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