The Department for Education (DfE) got in trouble recently for a misguided tweet stating, ‘Nonesense to say schools “must teach gay rights”. We want schools to teach broad curric [sic] based on British values.’ According to later clarification, it turned out that this was specifically in response to an interview with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan in a Sunday newspaper, which seemed to portray the idea that schools were being forced to ‘teach gay rights’ against their will. Instead, what they meant to tweet was that schools were only being encouraged to teach ‘British values’, which by extension includes tolerance. This has come up particularly in the light of recent surprise Ofsted inspections at forty schools, including ones for Christian and Jewish pupils, where it was judged that not enough was being done to foster such tolerance. So where does ‘gay rights’ come into this? Was the original tweet even a problem?
The wording of the tweet was definitely a problem, as well as the total lack of context for the comment. It is no surprise that many people were concerned that the DfE seemed to be excluding the notion of ‘gay rights’ from ‘British values’, in one way or another. It is also surprising that such a tweet was originally posted without any background about what it was responding to, meaning that it appeared as a sweeping and discriminatory statement. Whoever is responsible for running the Twitter account should definitely have been more careful from the start to avoid this kind of controversy. Even then, however, there is still something suspect about the idea that the DfE needed to defend their policy. As Labour MP Lucy Powell has stated, it is indeed worrying ‘that Nicky Morgan’s Department felt the need at all to rebuff the suggestion that schools should teach LGBT rights’ by instead pointing out the nuance of the policy being about ‘British values’ in general.
It is here that we discover the biggest problem underpinning this media debacle: the idea of ‘British values’ is being thrown around, without any apparent understanding of what these values are. The phrase itself is vacuous, open to arbitrary definitions and susceptible to exploitation through misleading propaganda. Nowhere does it seem to be clearly defined. The DfE states online that the government defines ‘British values’ as those of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs, basing this on the contents of the 2011 Prevent strategy (a counter-terrorism policy). What is strange here is that the Prevent document refers to these values inconsistently, and does not make clear reference to who actually agreed to these values.
Of course, in principle, these are perfectly acceptable values to have, but to define them as ‘British’ seems to suggest that anyone who fails to abide by them is by extension ‘not British.’ This logic assumes that ‘British’ tenets and values are perennial, thus avoiding the countless instances throughout time where British people have not abided by these ideas. Suggesting that such values are specifically ‘British’ also misses the basic point that your citizenship status, or nationality, does not matter when it comes to adhering to values which are, or at least should be, universal.
It is also not entirely clear where ‘gay rights’ fit in here, though it seems implied that they fit in under the idea of ‘tolerance’. While this is fine, it is nevertheless strange that this cannot be taught unless it’s branded as specifically ‘British’ in the first place, and this is perhaps the first problem which needs to be addressed – the notion the current government seems to have to contextualise its policies as ‘British’ so that they may be regarded as legitimate.