Fundamental British Values

This blog is a transcript of an assembly given in March 2015 by the Deputy Headmaster


Earlier this year two young Frenchmen executed twelve of their fellow countrymen because they objected to the manner in which the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo had portrayed Islam.


In 2005, four young Britons went on a murdering spree of their own, killing 52 people in London.


Six young people, born and educated in Western Europe, set out to terrorise and destroy the society of which they were a part.


Little wonder that governments across Western Europe have begun to look closely at how schools can help in the fight against radicalisation.


The latest example is our own Government’s decision to insist that all schools must not just encourage respect for but ACTIVELY PROMOTE ‘British values’.  Which means that for a start we need to consider what we mean by British values and how best those values can be imparted to those who do not already share them.


Any attempt to define British values is problematic.  For one thing, it is virtually impossible to identify a value that is explicitly British or even English.


When I asked some of the lads I teach if they could think of any values that might be particularly British, they struggled.  They talked about tolerance, democracy, freedom of speech, equality and human rights, that sort of thing.


They sensibly distinguished between fundamental British values and what are simply cultural or attitudinal differences:  our sense of humour, our exaggerated interest in the weather and, some said, an island mentality that perhaps makes us more suspicious of European cohesion than our continental partners.


The politicians must have reasoned that any attempt to define ‘British values’ was bound to be fraught with difficulty.  But, in the light of the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal in Birmingham schools where fundamentalist Islamic values opposed to what most British people believe were allegedly being promulgated, although the evidence for that is somewhat questionable, it was felt that there is no option but to insist that schools ‘actively promote’ four fundamental British values defined as:  democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for those of different faiths and beliefs.  We are not allowed to permit anti-Western rhetoric; segregation of any sort; any attempt to impose views on others in any setting or intolerance of others.


Given the horrors of 7/7 in London, the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, the Exodus of young Islamic Britons to fight in Syria and Iraq (some now posing as executioners on our television screens) and including a man who taught at a school in Bolton, plans to attack shoppers in Central Manchester, and the Trojan horse affair, just described, it is little wonder that the Government has acted.  And, on balance, I think it was right to do so.


I have only two quibbles.  The first is that we should be talking about ‘Western’ or ‘liberal’ values not exclusively British values.  Defining British values is quite obviously no easy task ………. and feeling uncomfortable talking about them is a very British trait in itself.


Terrorists and militants must realise that when they attack values held dear by Britain or France, Australia or the United States, they also attack values held equally dearly by Luxembourg, New Zealand and Finland.  We are a broad church and stronger for it.


The second is that the Government’s stated values are written too precisely with young militant Muslims in mind, which has led to one glaring omission:  the right to freedom of speech.


Militant Muslims, who represent a tiny minority of Muslims in the UK, do object to democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the practices of other faiths.  And, quite properly, these things are protected as fundamental British values which must be actively promoted in schools.  But because many militant Muslims use their right to freedom of speech to incite violence and hatred, as do others in our society of course, schools have no explicit obligation to promote freedom of expression.


And that is particularly sad in a school context because freedom of speech is so central to debate and education.


I understand the need to deny a tiny minority of militants the oxygen of publicity for their views but a failure to emphasise the central importance to our society of freedom of speech seems a huge price to pay.  Even more so, in the light of the murder of journalists in Paris.


But the Government is concerned about those who are much more vulnerable than boys here at Bolton School, to the poisonous whisperings of a perverted few.


Most important, is that all young Britons, of whatever background, leave school understanding how very lucky we are to live in Britain today.


You must leave this place understanding that while different people may hold different views about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, all people living in this country are subject to its law.  You must understand the difference between the law of the land and religious law (that is the law of any religion).


If Britishness is about tolerance and it is the attribute which has enabled five million immigrants and their descendants to comprise a tenth of the country’s population, it is incumbent on us all to tolerate those with whom we do not agree.  People who come here must accommodate ‘British tolerance’ and conform to those aspects of ‘Britishness’ which make society cohesive.  So must the rest of us.  A Briton can oppose or support UK foreign policy and campaign, write, agitate and stand for election towards that end.  But he or she cannot blow up his fellow countrymen to achieve his aims.   British culture insists on equality of men and women under the law and the freedom of young people to marry whom they choose and to have control over their own bodies.  Just as it is against English Law to stone adulterers, forced marriage, honour killing, female genital mutilation and child abuse are not permitted here – and these are in any case CULTURAL not RELIGIOUS values.


We are required to impart this information and these values to you all.


And, lastly, to be British is to have certain freedoms – to believe in what you will, to contract and associate with whom you wish.  The state only has authority to the extent granted by parliament, which is subject to the consent of the people.


So, to be British is to tolerate conflicting ideas, values and philosophies.  But not at any cost.  This society and this school are required, as a matter of moral principle and now by law, to state, defend and insist that all our people, of whatever religion, race, ethnicity or shade of political opinion, abide by the law and live according to our values.  And that we shall endeavour to do.

About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is Headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists.