The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail report on the concerns raised following Education Secretary Michael Gove’s decision to introduce new rules on ‘’British values’ to be taught in schools following the fallout from the alleged ‘Trojan Horse’ plot in Birmingham.
Michael Gove has listed a set of ‘British values’ which all schools will need to promote to combat extremism. The values, listed in a document seen by the Guardian, include “respect for the law, democracy, equality and tolerance of different faiths, religions and other beliefs”.
The values cohere with the definition of extremism in the revised Prevent strategy which was published in 2011 and defined extremism thus:
“…vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas.”
The newspapers note that the Department of Education (DfE) has also inserted further clauses into the model funding agreement between academies and the DfE stipulating that school governors should demonstrate “fundamental British values” while additionally giving the Secretary of State the power to close schools if they do not comply with the requirement. The new clauses would apply to all free schools and academies opening or schools converting to academy status.
Previously, the Education Secretary had powers to hamper school funding if there had been “a serious breakdown in the way the academy is managed or governed” or if a governor was not deemed “suitable”.
The new rules allow the Education Secretary to close schools or dismiss governors if he believes any member of the academy trust is “unsuitable” based on “relevant conduct” that is “aimed at undermining the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”
The present moves outline a greater concentration of powers in the office of the Education Secretary with no clear delineation of oversight in the exercise of these powers. They have, furthermore, attracted criticism from the Muslim Council of Britain as well as the Deputy Prime Minister with the former arguing that the rules could see conservative Muslims disqualified from the education sector.
The Daily Telegraph notes concerns aired by the MCB to the Guardian concerning the new rules and their likely unintended consequences if conservative beliefs were deemed incompatible with “British values”.
Talha Ahmad, a senior member of the MCB, stated: “People may have different views, and those views might be informed by faith. But does that mean the secretary of state should have the power to arbitrate these ideas, so much so that they should not be part of an educational establishment?
“This whole idea of giving the secretary of state the power to decide which views fall foul of British values, on matters such as school governors, seems to be draconian.
“As a matter of principle, to have so much power vested in one hand is wrong. But then to have powers over an area over which there is no consensus is, frankly speaking, quite dangerous.”
The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, voiced similar concerns saying media reporting on the alleged takeover of Birmingham schools by ‘extremists’ may have resulted in a “deeply regrettable” increase in Islamophobia.
In a letter to the MCB’s Secretary General Shuja Shafi, Clegg wrote “I would like to place clearly on the record that there is absolutely no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the UK are patriotic citizens who hold values that entirely accord with the traditions and values of our nation, not least through the rejection of all forms of intolerant extremism. Indeed for generations many British Muslims have helped protect, defend and enhance these values through their voluntary, civic and military service to our country.
“It would be fundamentally wrong for British citizens who hold the Islamic faith to be held to a different, or indeed, higher standard from other citizens. Being Muslim does not contradict being British, nor is it in tension with it. A person can uphold their religious and cultural identity as well as British identity.”
Clegg’s statement certainly reflects the evidence pertaining to British Muslim identity as shown in numerous surveys and studies. A study by the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity found that Muslims are more likely to identify with a ‘British only’ national identity than Christians and Jews. Similarly, a large scale longitudinal study carried out by the Institute for Social and Economic Research found that Britons with an ethnic minority background were more likely to identify with ‘Britishness’ than their white peers and that of all groups, Muslims were the most likely to identify with ‘Britishness’.
The heavy focus on Muslims in the media coverage on the revival of the debate on ‘British values’ comes at an interesting juncture in consideration of the significance applied to the value of “equality and tolerance of different faiths, religions and other beliefs” and a broader regard for “equality”. At a time when far right movements have consistently singled out Muslims for their particular brand of hostility and social and political activism, and the equality strands identified in the Equalities Act 2010 have been shown to come into conflict with one another in recent cases, the issue of adhering to and championing ‘British values’ of “equality and tolerance of different faiths, religions and other beliefs” goes much further than just the Muslim community however the media might spin it.