British Values

The Department for Education Consultation

2014 was the year for the UK Department for Education (DfE) to major on British values. On the 23 June 2014 it published a "Consultation on promoting British values in school". It was explained as "the launch of a consultation on strengthening powers to intervene in schools failing to promote British values". But what are British values and who should decide? The consultation made the Government's answer clear: British values are what the Government decide.

There were only a few weeks for responses to be submitted. Some had to be submitted by 4 August and others two weeks later by 18 August. What effect those responses had on the Department for Education is hard to say. But clearly the Department had made up its mind on British values, for it was fully prepared to issue binding regulations on schools on 4 September; and these were laid before Parliament on 8 September to come into force on 29 September. What the DfE has defined as "the fundamental British values" that educational institutions (including nurseries) must "actively promote" are: 1) democracy, 2) the rule of law, 3) individual liberty and 4) mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. However, there were issues with this definition. It produced a reaction from the Christian Institute who were threatening a judicial review in the light of the small print regarding the application of value "4" and sexuality, with the DfE saying that "actively promoting … means challenging pupils, staff or parents expressing opinions contrary to fundamental British values." It also produced an official reaction from the Church of England's National Society. This is responsible for the church's 4,700 state schools and so spoke for many when it made it clear "that British values should emanate from a broad public conversation, and not from the Secretary of State."

Further and other advice

To quieten this disquiet the DfE in a statement on 27 November included the following:

"the definition of fundamental British values is not new. The values were set out in the government's Prevent strategy in 2011 and have been part of the Independent School Standards since the beginning of 2013. Although the Department for Education invited comments on the drafting of the SMSC standard, it proposed no changes to the definition of British values, which are widely used in other contexts. The purpose of the consultation was not to seek representation on the definition, but on the proposal to strengthen the requirement on schools to actively promote the values to emphasise their importance, rather than just encouraging pupils to respect them."

But who has the right to define "fundamental British Values"? For issues such as "values" relating to "the SMSC (Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural) standard", must be considered as "religious" matters. And the DfE has already endorsed guidance given in 2010 that "religion and beliefs inform our values and are reflected in what we say and how we behave." Also that 2010 guidance reminds us that religious teaching in schools must be "consistent with Section 375(3) of the Education Act 1996, which requires the syllabus to reflect that the religious traditions of Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain."

Furthermore there is a confusion in using the imprecise umbrella word "values". This has led the DfE (and others) to omit the distinction between what some call "aims" from what they call "assumptions". The omission then is of the great British "aim", namely the "pursuit of truth" and the overriding British "assumption", according to 1996 Education Act, of the "Christian tradition".

Aims and assumptions

So what are "aims"? They are the various components of what people consider the "good life". They are things for which people would make great sacrifices. They are truly valuable and so "values" such as, indeed, democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, respect and toleration, and the pursuit of truth. Nor are these aims to be seen only in terms of individual and personal goals, but in terms of the aspirations of a whole age or period. What, then, are "assumptions" in this context? "Assumptions" relate to wider questions of life and existence. They are the "background beliefs" people hold about the nature of the world, man and his place in society. They may be held almost unconsciously. They are rather like the air you breathe; you are not aware of it until it is no longer is there! And the most common source for these "assumptions" or background beliefs that nurture these "aims" is religious belief; so in Britain it is the Christian tradition.

This being the case, what is needed for human and social flourishing and cultural growth and vitality is this: the aims of a society (for example, democracy) need to be backed up by its background beliefs (such come from the Christian tradition). For these beliefs reinforce aims like democracy, law, liberty, respect and truth and prevent them being perverted. But if good aims are being held that are no longer backed up by society's current beliefs, you sooner or later have spiritual, moral, social and cultural decay - SMSC decay! Then without a peaceful religious revival, such societies are ripe for various forms of totalitarianism to bring about social order, whether secular fascist or religious jihadist.

A previous discussion

"British values" were last a genuinely public issue at the end of the Second World War. For example, in 1944 there was a famous series of lectures by varied lecturers including Dorothy Sayers and Christopher Dawson entitled Our Culture – its Christian Roots and Present Crisis. And the first lecture by V A Demant was entitled The Aims and Assumptions of our Culture. First, Demant argued that a culture's values or aims are the result of historic growth. These aims depend on definite influences or assumptions in its nation's history. But if these influences or assumptions dry up, like a plant uprooted from the ground, it will die. That is why, secondly, he argued that like a plant a culture needs to be tended. So those who enjoy it have to make every effort to preserve it.

And this is helpful to remember at any time and not just when Hitler was still a threat. For when we listen to Demant, we recognize parallels today with 1944. These were his words then: "We have taken our civilization for granted; or, to change the metaphor, it has become an artificial superstructure upon crumbling foundations … This culture which we inherit from past ages in Europe, and which has its own variations of character in different lands, as it has in our Anglo-Saxon culture, is in the twentieth century the subject of a number of colossal revolutions. It is in a state of judgment. The crisis, as I interpret it [in 1944], has two phases. In the "democratic" communities the aims of men are on the whole still those of European civilization, so largely formed by Christian outlooks; but the assumptions, the things they take for granted and the habits considered normal, have been formed by influences which are opposed to the aims. The contradiction is not conscious. In the "totalitarian" countries, on the other hand, the conflict has been solved by abolishing the aims and finding new ones to fit in with the assumptions and habits."

The good news for us today is that "crumbling foundations" can be strengthened. They were at the end of the war by a self-conscious return to Christian roots in Europe by key opinion formers. So in the same year that Demant was lecturing, when the "education for all" 1944 Education Act was introduced in the House of Lords, Lord Selbourne, referring to its Christian values (and with Hitler still undefeated), said this: "The real enemy is naked materialistic paganism which has reared its head in Europe to a height unknown for a 1,000 years which threatens Christianity today and with it our civilization, our homes and our people ... Anglo-Saxon democracy would perish without the Christian ethic and unless we are brought up to be a God-fearing Christian nation, all our vaunted progress in other directions will crumble into dust." Then as a new vision for Europe was being born it was unashamedly Christian. So on 19 March 1958, addressing the first European Parliament, Robert Schuman, architect and driving force of the first Community, said "all the countries of Europe are permeated by Christian civilization. It is the soul of Europe which must be restored to it." Even Jacques Delors in 1999 speaking of the Christian heritage of Europe, said: "The contribution of Christianity remains essential precisely because of the wisdom with which it nourishes its vision of humanity and because of its appeal to the renewal of faith in the values that are the legacy of the gospel."


Article XX of the established Church of England's Thirty-nine says "the Church hath ... authority in Controversies of Faith". So as controversy over values is a "Controversy of Faith", the Government needs challenging by (believing orthodox) Christians to add "the pursuit of truth" and "the Christian tradition" to its four values, and needs challenging before the General Election, and certainly before the promised European Referendum. The need for truth is self-evident; and it needs the Christian tradition because it prevents 1) democracy allowing 51 percent to enslave 49 percent of the people, 2) the rule of law sanctioning evil laws, 3) individual liberty fracturing social order and drifting into anarchy; and it requires 4) mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. For accepting "God and Caesar" unlike secularism and Islam, it uniquely allows for pluralism; it sees each person made in God's image so with freedom and to be respected; but its tolerance seeks respectfully to correct what is false or wrong.

Back to top