Talking standards: part 10 of a conversation between educationalists Sir Tim Brighouse and David Cameron

In the 10th part of our ongoing online conversation, Scottish educationalist David Cameron (left) sets out his own version of what constitutes ‘British values’ in response to former schools commissioner for London Sir Tim Brighouse

Dear Tim,

I think it would have been entirely appropriate to have used the term “rant” with regard to my last blog. I would plead guilty as charged. I suppose my problem is that I become more passionate, rather than less, as I get older.

I feel an enormous sense of frustration that we only ever seem capable of creating islands of good practice. With support, as in the case of the London Challenge and some of the excellent school partnerships of which we are both aware, we sometimes manage the archipelago, but creating the continent seems beyond us.

I think that is what lies at the root of my comment about social change as opposed to social mobility, and I apologise if that was far from clear when I last wrote.

For me, social mobility has become associated with the advancement of individuals. In Scotland, we used to talk of the “lad of pairts”, the child of promise who would be identified early in the village schools and given the attention and encouragement that would enable them to move on and become perceived as something more, and better, than a labourer.

That sort of thinking is endemic in England where the pressure on parents is even greater than here to get their children into the best possible school, to use that to get a head start and then to reinforce that in any way possible.

The market appears to rule absolutely and there is an acceptance of choice as a means of accessing quality in education. Perhaps that too is a “British value”. I am not against choice, but it should not be an accepted means of determining how well a young person is educated. I would prefer the value of entitlement, where the nature of education might be chosen but the quality could be taken for granted. It may be a pipe dream at present, but it is surely an ambition that we need to hold on to.

Scotland is not immune to choice but we are not seeing the same fragmentation of the education system as you do in England. To some extent this reflects the nature of settlements in Scotland, with more towns and fewer cities, but it also reflects a value, which is centred on the community rather than the individual.

That’s the problem with values: they involve choice and I don’t think that we have made the same choices across Britain. It is not a cross-border issue but, as I have said before, it has cross-border aspects. Worryingly, “British values” have been announced without discussion, debate or engagement and, as you say, they are full of contradictions.

The Department for Education publication swings between “British” and “English” in a way that suggests that neither awareness nor sensitivity are to be included in our “British values”. We did lots of work in Scotland on values-based education and tended to draw on the work of the Institute of Global Ethics. What was interesting about that was the extent to which we found that values were common across countries and cultures. They were not identical, nor always expressed in the same way, but broadly the key ones were honesty, respect, fairness, compassion and responsibility.

These are not far removed from the values expressed by the other David Cameron in his explanation of British values: “I would say freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions.

The difference is the annexation to one country and the devotion to “British institutions”, which could include anything from the House of Lords to Strictly Come Dancing. This devotion causes more problems than it solves, not least because it avoids the real issue (whether or not we are a multicultural society that celebrates diversity – the happy salad bowl, or a melting pot, where immigrant cultures are forged into a single mould).

Implicit, or perhaps, explicit, in the concept of British values is the idea that there is a native culture, established at some point in our history that is superior to any other. This is an alienating concept. A unifying concept would be democratic values, for no community can exist without a common and shared core of beliefs, enshrined in law, demonstrated in public life and communicated, developed and shared through education.

So I support you in your quest for debate, although we need to think about who that involves. We must ensure it reflects the communities, as well as the countries, that make up the United Kingdom. I think we could reflect that in your group of “committed practitioners”.

And my “starter for 10” on the purposes of education will inevitably sound trite, but here is an opening gambit. It is there to:

  • offer knowledge and understanding that enriches lives and promotes further learning;
  • develop empathy and a sense of mutual dependency;
  • encourage curiosity and the skills to pursue it;
  • support creativity in all disciplines;
  • enable people to participate fully in learning, life and work;
  • ensure awareness of ecology and a responsibility to future generations;
  • enable people to find beauty and richness and value both;
  • encourage independent thought, free from selfishness;
  • give a sense of heritage that allows us to feel rooted and a capacity to cope with, and make, change.

I hope it’s not too trite, but let me end on the quote from the advisory report on secondary education in Scotland in 1947: “Hence the good school is to be assessed not by any tale of examination success, however impressive, but by the extent to which it has filled the years of youth with security, graciousness and ordered freedom. And has been the seed bed for the flowering in due season of all that is of good report.”

I look forward to hearing from you


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