s a recent migrant to this country, I got a shock when my husband and I looked for a childminder for our baby. The ones we met told us that alongside development goals such as eating solids and saying “Mama” and “Dada”, our child would be learning “British values”.
One had an official Ofsted-approved British values “wheel” displayed on her wall, next to educational posters designed to teach shapes and colours. The wheel had a picture of a doe-eyed child in the centre, with green arrows radiating from the child to the values, written on a yellow disc. I asked her about this baffling graphic and she rolled her eyes. “Oh yes,” she said ruefully. “The British values. Got to have them.”
This was the first I’d heard of “British values”. At first I assumed this must be an old, proud British tradition – it seemed like the only plausible reason to teach them to all children, including babies, as well as to label the innocuous, mundane sentiments on the childminders’ laminated printout as specifically “British”. But then I found out that this idea is barely five years old. In June 2014, the then-education secretary, Michael Gove, introduced them as part of the government’s response to the now discredited Trojan horse affair, in which Islamic extremists supposedly attempted to take over schools in Birmingham. The Trojan horse affair may have been a fake, but British values are apparently here to stay.
So what are these so-called British values? According to the government, they are: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. These values were first laid out in the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy in 2011, a set of guidelines intended ostensibly to “prepare children for life in modern Britain”. Schools and nurseries are now required to “actively promote” them, for example by: “includ[ing] in suitable parts of the curriculum – as appropriate for the age of pupils – material on […] how democracy and the law works in Britain, in contrast to other forms of government in other countries”. How to explain that in an age-appropriate way for my son, who is seven months old, was not made clear.
The childminders we spoke to cared for up to six children at a time by themselves, or with one assistant, in their homes. These homes were spotless and orderly, run with precision and grace. Many of these women were migrants and mothers themselves. It seems like a farce to pretend that they should be responsible for making sure my baby isn’t being indoctrinated into extremist ideology or that he appreciates the rule of law.
But then British values were not added to his curriculum because child education experts thought they were appropriate, or educationally sound – they were added because of fears of religiously motivated violence. My son is still working on learning to crawl, and on eating foods that are any texture other than a puree. He also has a tendency to pull plates off tables, bang his head against the wall, and try to roll off the changing table. I don’t want his childminders’ time wasted on remembering to impart vague propaganda when they have the extremely challenging responsibility of looking after other people’s children. Yet they risk losing their livelihoods if they don’t teach these notional values.
To be clear, I do think my son should be taught morals and ethics as he gets older. I just don’t understand the need to pretend that the concepts he learns will be uniquely or especially “British”. I’m from the US, where we have plenty of talk in our schools about the greatness of our nation. I was often told to recite the pledge of allegiance, which claims the US offers “liberty and justice for all”, as well as adding that we’re a nation “under God”, despite our constitution’s separation of church and state.
But as I grew older, I was also taught about the atrocities in our past, such as slavery and the Trail of Tears (the forced relocation of Native Americans). A dark-chapter-filled history is something the US has in common with Britain, with its legacy of colonialism and empire. And as he grows older, I want my son’s teachers and curriculum-designers to always bear in mind the mistakes of the past, not lionise the nation’s history into a narrative of nostalgic or nationalistic haze. My husband and I met childminders who migrated to Britain from Eritrea, Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, all nations that suffered under European colonial rule. It seems particularly cruel to force people whose ancestors were brutalised by British colonists to indoctrinate children into the idea that “individual liberty” is a fundamentally or uniquely British value.
I want my son eventually to learn about British history, the good and the bad. I want him to learn about US history in the same way. And I hope his carer – we eventually chose the childminder from Côte d’Ivoire – will teach him about the country she was born in, and about her family’s traditions. That multiculturalism will go a lot further to demonstrate the inclusive, strong and respectful nature of Britain today than the force-feeding of “British values” ever could.