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Michael Gove's Quest for British Values in Education

11/06/2014 10:23 BST | Updated 10/08/2014 10:59 BST

In the wake of Ofsted's alleged (and vehemently contested) 'Trojan Horse' plot by certain zealous Muslims to infiltrate and take over a number of schools in Birmingham, Michael Gove has insisted that all educational establishments must 'actively promote British values'. In a rather ungracious response, Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt told BBC2's Newsnight: "I'm not sure Michael Gove would know if British values came and bit him on the bum."

This is unfair, not to say inaccurate, because under Gove the DfE has considerably elevated the inculcation of moral values in the curriculum, and they did so as far back as 2011. And the following year, Gove demanded that 'Fundamental British Values' become part of Teachers' Standards for professional qualification and continuing assessment. These were distilled to 'democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs'.

With the advent of Academies under New Labour and Free Schools under the Conservative/LibDem coalition, and the consequent devolution of the curriculum to these quasi-independent schools, there is a debate to be had about the place of Citizenship teaching and moral-political education in the curriculum. The bipolar division that once existed between private fee-paying schools and public schools financed by the taxpayer has incrementally become a tripartite system with the addition of publicly-funded schools which have a measure of autonomy from the local authority.

And there are valid questions being raised relating to the liberties and latitudes being granted to these schools. Are we simply exchanging state uniformity for parental tyranny? How do schools promote a culture of social cohesion towards the common good in a context of 'rootless individualism'? What does moral education mean when detached from the foundations of the state's morality? How do you promote a cohesive social integration in a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multicultural educational context?

Free Schools and Academies are permitted to deviate from the national curriculum in certain respects, and, indeed, opt not to teach Citizenship at all. This leaves teaching the virtues of 'democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs' to be imparted across the core curriculum, and it usually falls to the Humanities (and especially Religious Education) to realise this.

While some may oppose the state contract which has existed since 1944 with regard to the inculcation of a Christian ethos in the state sector, it is clear that multi-ethnic pluralism and increasing secularism are challenging this settlement. With the advent of more state-financed Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools alongside the traditional Christian and Jewish schools, some vexing moral political and legal conflicts are emerging. These relate to the aims of education, and the proper balance between state authority, parental rights and religious liberty. The liberalism inherent in the Free School movement is arguably antithetical to the notion of virtuous citizenship: the good society depends either on the organic forces of conservatism or the revolutionary imposition of socialism.

Perhaps it is time for Ofsted to start assessing schools once again on the extent to which their daily assemblies are 'broadly Christian', and also on the amount of RE which is dedicated to teaching our national Christian history, culture, traditions and values. This wouldn't be anything new: the stipulation is contained in the 1988 Education Act, and was reiterated in successive Conservative and Labour legislation. It is simply that Ofsted long ago gave up on ensuring compliance with the legislation: in our increasingly 'secular' and 'multicultural' context, they take the view that the law is otiose.

But that which is 'broadly Christian' tends to be conducive to the principles of liberal democracy, because the gospel is blind to gender and race, and the notion of loving your neighbour knows no social, economic or political boundaries. Such 'broadly Christian' principles might include the democratic pursuit of justice, which tends to nullify notions of political jihad. It also includes equality, which directly challenges the sort of gender segregation which permits boys to sit at the front of the classroom while girls are relegated to the back.

As diverse and competing religious groups run more and more Academies and Free Schools, they compete increasingly for an assertion of identity and for social recognition. In a context of equal rights for all, it becomes evident that there emerges a hierarchy of rights in which the freedoms of minorities are divergences from the cultural mainstream. To be inclusive in education is to embrace ethnic pluralism within the context of that which is 'broadly Christian', for our modern secularity is infused with Christian values: the faith of our forefathers permeates our democratic values - the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs - even if that faith is no longer explicit.

The broad embrace of Christianity has permitted distinctive identities of marginalised groups to enter into a common curriculum. Indeed, the secular state school which values pluralism and institutional diversity, is intrinsically broadly Christian.

Michael Gove knows this.

But I'm not sure Tristram Hunt would recognise the facts if they came and bit him on the bum.