Posted by Lee Jerome on 07.04.19 in Guest Blogs

Associate Professor of Education at Middlesex University and editor of Teaching Citizenship.

Fundamentally British, or just democratic?

Whilst the fortunes of citizenship education have been troubled in recent years, we have seen the rise in prominence of fundamental British values (FBV) embedded in schools’ responses to the Prevent duty and the Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) guidance for schools. This frames the following issues as values to be promoted:

  • Democracy;
  • The rule of law;
  • Individual liberty;
  • Mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

At face value this seems perfectly reasonable – most teachers would probably be happy to sign up to these values, but on reflection they present more of a problem to a profession dedicated to ‘education’ and the development of knowledge, rather than simply to indoctrination or the unthinking transmission of moral messages.

Let’s start with some obvious questions:

  • What is democracy? At some level it involves people having a vote to choose their government, but it also includes a series of particular freedoms (belief, media, speech, action etc). But almost all countries have some of these to some extent, so where do we draw the line between a real democracy and sham democracy? Could it be having an elected leader who lies brazenly to the public, in which case is the USA still a democracy? Could it be having elections with some element of choice, in which case is North Korea a democracy? Could it be having all legislators elected (and therefore replaceable), in which case does the House of Lords preclude the UK from being democratic?
  • The rule of law is a good thing, and good citizens should generally follow the law. But what about laws that are harmful or discriminatory? How do we square teaching about the rule of law whilst celebrating the suffragettes, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and others? They all broke the law, but in retrospect we applaud them for it. What criteria do we use to justify this, and how do we then interpret the rule of law if it’s actually conditional on other things?
  • Individual liberty is clearly wonderful, but we can’t all be free to do what we want all the time. This is particularly obvious to children who are compelled by law to attend school, with no freedom to opt out. But the rest of us are not free to say anything (no hate speech, incitement to violence, libel etc), do anything (no harm to others, breaking the law etc), go anywhere (no trespassing, no travel without visas etc). So how free are we, really? And who decides, if not us?
  • Mutual respect and toleration is also a great value for schools to promote, but do we really expect schools to tolerate everything? Religious beliefs that children are possessed by evil spirits? The rejection of people’s rights to be LGBT? The right to ‘defend’ English culture against immigration? Clearly, we do not expect schools to equally respect every different view, and clearly some beliefs are actually intolerable, many others are very difficult to tolerate.

It turns out that these great ideas are actually not values at all, but incredibly important concepts and principles that underpin our attempts to build a plural democratic society. At the heart of this list are fundamental questions about what it means to live together with people with whom we have profound differences. We have different ideas about what makes a good life worth living, about the way we and others should live, and about the reasons why. But somehow, we have to find a way to govern ourselves, with enough common rules to keep the show on the road, and enough shared views to enable us to resolve problems and make difficult policy decisions – how much money should we contribute to government and how should it be spent on pensions, healthcare, welfare? How do we tackle climate change, who pays and who has to change how they do things? How do we reconcile freedom with security in a time when we’re all afraid or terrorism?

The only educational answer is to take a long hard look at the curriculum and to think seriously about how we build children’s understanding of these concepts and the difficult debates in which these ideas play out. This is about two things: teachers being prepared to consistently engage in controversial issues (exactly those areas where these concepts find no easy resolution); and teachers coherently building children’s understanding of these ideas, so they have the knowledge to really understand how all of these issues relate to one another, and ultimately how they relate back to us as citizens.

I’m really pleased to be making a small contribution to that challenging educational project, through a collaborative project with the Association for Citizenship Teaching (ACT) and the English Speaking Union (ESU). For more details and some free resources look for the Deliberative Classroom project here: I am also leading a research project to explore how children talk about these issues – what knowledge do they draw on, and how do they build their understanding through discussion. If you’d like to know more about this, or volunteer to be involved over the summer term (2019) get in touch at:  

Lee Jerome is Associate Professor of Education at Middlesex University and editor of Teaching Citizenship. Back copies of the journal are available here:


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