Fundamental British values, religion and inequalities

Fundamental British values, religion and inequalities

John Holmwood

There is a long shadow cast by the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair of a supposed plot to Islamicise schools in Birmingham, Oldham and Bradford. Claims of a plot emerged in early 2014 accompanied by a moral panic in the media. However, despite official investigations purporting to demonstrate a plot, it has subsequently been shown to be false, as indicated by the collapse in May 2017 of the professional misconduct cases brought against teachers involved.

Indeed, notwithstanding claims in the media and in the report on the affair by former Metropolitan Police head of counter-terrorism, Peter Clarke, no charges of extremism, or of bullying and harassment were brought against the teachers, only accusations of ‘undue religious influence’. This was despite the fact that the school at the centre of the accusations, Park View Academy, was teaching the locally agreed religious education curriculum, as specified by the Birmingham Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education, which also had granted a ‘determination’ to allow Islamic collective worship as far back as 1996.

The affair is the only example of ’extremists’ seeking to gain influence over an institution that is cited in the Counter Extremism Strategy 2015 to justify the new policy direction. It is also the primary justification of the need to promote fundamental British values in schools. It is not simply that there was no such plot, but, as I shall argue, the school in question should properly have been seen as an example of successful integration in multicultural Britain.

Since 2014, schools have been required to make a curriculum response to a supposed problem of extremism as a consequence of new duty to promote fundamental British values. These are defined as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and respect and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs. However, within this set of values religious tolerance is increasingly directed at British Muslims in their relation to others and not to others to be tolerant toward the beliefs and practices of British Muslims.

The government acknowledges that ‘fundamental British values’ are not uniquely British. They are what underpin the constitutional framework of any liberal democratic state and are related to the various legislative protections of ‘rights’.  However, ‘values’ and ‘rights’ are not the same. As procedural principles, they presume a diverse public sphere populated by different understandings of what constitutes the good life. Rights provide protections for the pursuit of those differences, as indicated by the reference to ‘respect and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs’.

The liberal advocacy of difference entails a minimum agreement on procedural norms to guarantee their unhindered practice and mutual cohabitation. This should be distinguished from the promotion of liberalism itself as the required form of the good life that is be inculcated in citizens. As Rivers argues, invocation of liberal ideals can be used to diminish the importance of religion and conscience by proposing that individual rights trump collective interactions. However, any active assertion of liberal ideals as values renders them ‘collective’, now potentially in conflict with other collective interactions.

The Equality Act 2010 sets out a number of characteristics – there are nine in all, including, age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation – that are to be protected from discrimination in employment or the provision of services. This does not mean that there is a requirement on individuals to believe that same sex marriage is equally valid as heterosexual marriage, or that atheism is equally valid as religious belief, merely to understand that there is an obligation not to discriminate against those who seek to live their lives according to such commitments. In addition, there are recognised exemptions where the protections do not hold, for example, exemptions with regard to the exclusion of women from a priesthood, or exemptions with regard to private schools.

The counter-extremism strategy is increasingly drawing on the Equality Act 2010 to instantiate British values. This was set out in the Conservative Manifesto for the 2017 election which proposed the setting up of a Commission for Countering Extremism. It stated that, “our enjoyment of Britain’s diversity must not prevent us from confronting the menace of extremism. Extremism, especially Islamist extremism, strips some British people, especially women, of the freedoms they should enjoy, undermines the cohesion of our society and can fuel violence. To defeat extremism, we need to learn from how civil society and the state took on racism in the twentieth century” (page: 55). In effect, the argument is that civil society organisations – for example, those associated with women’s rights and LGBT rights – will be encouraged to mobilise against community practices that are understood to be hostile to those rights.

In effect, this is an assertive insistence upon the active acceptance of supposedly liberal values. This is different from recognising their role in facilitating a public sphere where difference can be expressed. It has had particularly serious consequences for civil rights and religious freedoms, with minority religious faiths particularly affected.  Notwithstanding Rivers’s argument, ‘collective interactions’ have come to be defended and mobilised against faith groups, in arguments that religious views on women and LGBT relationships constitute a ‘collective’ harm of misogyny and homophobia, even if ‘individual’ harms are avoided by refraining from discriminatory actions. Thus, it would not be considered an appropriate response simply to outline strong religious injunctions against harming others, including harm by words, if that guidance also recognised religious teachings that same sex relationships were invalid from a religious perspective. This was recently proposed by the Chief Rabbi, but largely went unreported.

Assertive liberalism is very different from recognising the role of rights in facilitating a public sphere where difference can be expressed. It has had particularly serious consequences for civil rights and religious freedoms, with minority religious faiths particularly affected.  To some extent, this reflects earlier misgivings expressed about the inclusion of religion and belief in the list of protected characteristics because of a potential conflict with other protected characteristics, most especially those associated with women’s rights (gender) and LGBT rights (sexual orientation).

However, there is also the issue of the intersection of religion with race and ethnicity, a topic that is particularly significant at present in discussions of whether a definition of Islamophobia should be adopted similar to that of anti-Semitism. The National Secular Society, for example, has expressed concern that, “allegations of Islamophobia will be, indeed already are being, used to effectively shield Islamic beliefs and even extremists from criticism, and that formalising this definition will result in it being employed effectively as something of a backdoor blasphemy law.” They go on, “to silence or stifle criticisms of Islam would be to deleterious to free speech and counterproductive to social cohesion.”

They implicitly suggest that adherence to the precepts of faith is a problem from the perspective of social cohesion, rather than itself potentially also contributing to social cohesion. Nor do they explain why similar problems do not also arise with definitions of anti-Semitism. It is worrying that Lord Carlile, recently appointed to undertake the Independent Review of Prevent, has endorsed a report by Policy Exchange that makes similar arguments.

The Equality Act 2010 was passed by the Labour Government and accepted by the incoming Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition, albeit without clauses associated with social and economic inequalities (just as the duty on schools to promote fundamental British values, drops a parallel concern with addressing inequalities from an earlier duty to promote community cohesion). The Act and its public sector duty had its origins in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 which followed the Macpherson Report into the death of Stephen Lawrence and its identification of institutional racism. As such, the purpose of the Act and its subsequent extension in the Equality Act 2010 was to facilitate inclusion in the context of institutional obstacles (and, with the emphasis on social and economic inequalities, also ‘structural’ obstacles).

This initial impulse to tackle institutional obstacles to inclusion has been inverted, with the problem now understood to be self-exclusion, which is to be resolved by the inculcation of British values, as exemplified by the Equality Act 2010 itself. However, in this context, religious differences are understood to be part of the problem and their status as protected characteristics increasingly challenged, where that challenge is legitimated by reference to other protected characteristics (it is this that is at issue in the recent furore over the ‘No Outsiders’ curriculum at Parkfield school in Birmingham, widely represented in the media as being about lessons on same sex relationships in sex and relationship education, but, in fact being about a ‘whole school’ approach to the teaching of fundamental British values under Prevent).

Government policy under Prevent, now seeks to displace rights of religious expression, in the name of safeguarding children from the religious convictions of their parents. They have done so in the context of a manufactured concern with a problem of integration of British Muslims and an Islamophobic representation of Islam as a backward religion at odds with British values. A publicly-funded school organised on ‘liberal’ principles, it is argued, can function to educate parents as well as children, but will, at least, safeguard children from parental values.

For example, the Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills, Amanda Spielman, at a conference on fundamental British values in education recently argued that, “most children spend less than a fifth of their childhood hours in schools and most of the rest with their family. And so if children aren’t being taught these values at home, or worse are being encouraged to resist them, then schools are our main opportunity to fill that gap.” She went on to argue that, “this, I believe, was where the so-called Trojan Horse schools failed. Not only were there issues with promoting British Values in many of those schools, but in some cases members of the community were attempting to bring extreme views into school life. The very places that should have been broadening horizons and outlooks were instead reinforcing a backward view of society.”

The truth about the school at the centre of the supposed plot is somewhat different. Park View was a school with 98.9% of its pupils of Muslim heritage. It had been in special measures in 1996 and that by 2012 it was in the top 14% of all schools in England for academic achievement. This was despite the fact that 72.7% of its pupils were on free school meals and just 7.5% had English as a first language. It also had a higher than average percentage of pupils with special needs. These are all parameters associated with poor educational outcomes, yet Park View had transcended them. In part, this is because the religious ethos of the school elicited confidence in the pupils and commitment on the part of the parents.

Although part of the dominant Trojan Horse narrative was that religiously-motivated governors and parents had put pressure on successful headteachers (for example, the then Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw made this claim), it was the successful headteacher of Park View, Lindsey Clarke, and her senior team, who were pilloried, including by Sir Michael. Park View school was a highly successful school that was following policies previously recommended to support the educational achievements of ethnic minority pupils. For example, the Swann Report of 1985 recommended that schools and curricula should reflect and provide for the cultural identities of children, as well as tackle direct and indirect discrimination, in order to raise the educational performance of minority ethnic children. The report also noted: “Far more can and should be done by schools to respond to the ‘pastoral’ needs of Muslim pupils, to ensure that there is a real respect and understanding by both teachers and parents of each other’s concerns and that the demands of the school place no child in fundamental conflict with the requirements of his [sic] faith” (pages 773-4).

Neil Basu, currently the most senior counter terrorism officer at the Metropolitan Police has recently stated that, “policies that go towards more social inclusion, more social mobility and more education are much more likely to drive down violence … than all the policing and state security apparatus put together. It is much more likely to have a positive effect on society.” In short, Prevent has inverted previous best practice associated with community integration.

The current Prevent strategy risks civil liberties for everyone by its attempt to criminalise values and beliefs, and to conflate traditional, even conservative, values with extremism. However it has particularly negative consequences for British Muslims. We should not be surprised that it is itself built upon an injustice and a failure to respect due process in the treatment of governors and teachers. The Birmingham Trojan Horse affair destroyed the livelihoods and reputations of highly committed and professional governors and teachers and brought its local Muslim communities into deep disrespect. Its highly committed and professional teachers and governors have, nonetheless, had their reputations and livelihoods destroyed. In the name of British values, they have been denied due process that the commitment to the rule of law would otherwise seem to prescribe.


John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He was an expert witness for the defence in the case brought by the NCTL against senior teachers at Park View school. Together with Therese O’Toole, he is author of Countering Extremism in British Schools? The truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair, Policy Press, 2017).

Image: from the play, Trojan Horse, by LUNG Theatre (Copyright: Helen Monks, writer; Matt Woodhead, writer/director). The play is on tour at theatres during October and November 2019, and in January and February 2020.