Michael Gove, champion of the education system and teachers’ pet, has recently told school governors to abide by ‘British values’. I’m a parent of school-age children and a firm believer in many of the values he cites – among them, democracy, equality and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs – so you’d assume I might have an interest in those values being promoted in our schools. Instead, I’m irritated and offended by Gove’s hi-jacking of liberalism.
There’s something galling about the Westminster elite acting as a self-appointed barometer of public feeling and telling the rest of us what Britishness entails. Gove’s beginnings may have been humble but in what sense can an Oxford-educated member of the kitchen-supper brigade claim to reflect the mood of the nation? It strikes me that the British character – if such a thing exists – is a stubborn independence of spirit tempered by a certain diffidence and an understated sense of irony. Taken together, those qualities are likely to result in an outright refusal to be told what values to espouse. Perhaps that’s my problem.
But, of course, Gove’s advice isn’t meant for people like me. It’s directed at Muslim school governors in response to the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal involving allegations of religious extremism in Birmingham schools. If a tiny minority of Muslim governors hold illiberal beliefs that influence the provision of education (and Ofsted’s findings in this regard are hotly disputed), we need to be honest and simply say that this is unacceptable. By going further and implicitly condemning certain beliefs as ‘un-British’, Gove creates an ‘us-and-them’ dichotomy that borders on the racist. After all, I don’t hear him levelling accusations of un-Britishness at all those white UKIP voters whose values strike at the heart of his notion of equality.
Anyway, what about Christian governors? Many so-called Church of England schools are happy to accept children of all faiths or none. The parents might tick the ‘Christian’ box on the entry form but the reality is that the vast majority of pupils at such schools are atheist or agnostic. Against that backdrop, shouldn’t we question the role of church-appointed foundation governors tasked with promoting the Christian faith? Such scrutiny is unlikely to be prompted by Gove, who has approved free schools run by Creationists as part of his great drive towards educational excellence.
Inevitably, the identification of Gove’s ‘British values’ is itself a value-judgement. Let’s not pretend that liberal values are self-evidently superior to other worldviews. The reality is that they trump other values because we, as a liberal democracy, decide that they should. And in the context of the Trojan Horse controversy and the rise of UKIP, to dress up these adopted values as somehow ‘British’ is dangerous. It’s a dishonest tactic that promotes religious and racial intolerance, undermining the very values that Gove claims to support.