In her recent appearance before the Select Committee on Education, Nicky Morgan said that “we must not be shy about talking about fundamental British values.” She added that schools should promote values like mutual respect and equality between girls and boys; and that ideals such as democracy and tolerance must be “woven” into the curriculum.
If these are British values, I’m a Dutchman. The ones she mentions are those of liberal democracy. They are prized as much in Helsinki or Washington as they are in London. It is excellent that the new Secretary of State is backing them in our schools and that she is not giving them lip service, but suggesting how this should happen. She is right that weaving them into the curriculum is the way forward.
A lot turns, of course, on where she’s taking this. There are two possibilities. One is that she follows her predecessor in seeing the curriculum, especially in secondary schools, as boxed sets of separate subjects, based on the transmission of knowledge. These already include Citizenship at Key Stages 3 and 4, but Ms Morgan seems now to be looking at the curriculum across the board. If so, there’s not much scope there for her new loom, as material on democratic values would somehow have to added to what is already there on Spanish (etc) grammar, geometry, the periodic table, and so on. It’s hard to see how this could be done.
Perhaps she has history in mind? This may be the most likely subject. I do think there are possibilities here. I’d suggest as a new topic: whether Britain has got any further in its attachment to democracy than when the full franchise came in nearly 90 years ago. It would have more going for it than Michael Gove’s now abandoned favourite, the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy.
The second possibility is that Ms Morgan wants to see democratic values infusing the whole life of the school. This fits her weaving image much better. The subject-based approach conjures up a different picture: of shoving things into drawers already full of other items.
It also puts the emphasis on democratic character education, not just the accumulation of knowledge. This is exactly what is wanted. From age four children need to be brought up to be certain kinds of people – cooperative, caring, tolerant, respectful of each other as equals.
Schools need to think how best to foster this aim. Knowledge will play a part, of course, since acquiring these virtues gradually extends from face-to-face interactions to relationships with strangers in the national community and more globally. An understanding of these wider worlds will increasingly inform them.
But attitudes and matching behaviour must be at the heart of Nicky Morgan’s project. Good schools attend to these by building up the right kind of school ethos and commitment from the whole staff, involving children in discussion and democratic decision-making about whole-school matters and classroom activities, interdisciplinary projects that feed in relevant knowledge while encouraging collaboration and respect for others’ points of view.
The weaving metaphor is wonderfully apt for this kind of work. It will mean a change in priorities for the National Curriculum, but I have every confidence that our new Secretary of State will introduce them. Its aims will have to be broadened from introducing students to ‘essential knowledge’ and give democratic dispositions a central place. It will have to give schools much more autonomy in devising ways of realising these aims. It will also have to be reinstituted in the types of school from which the Coalition has excluded it, and ideally extended to private schools as well.