After the last serious outbreak of urban rioting in this country, back in 2011, the then prime minister David Cameron responded with a speech which identified a “slow-motion moral collapse” as the cause of the unrest. There followed much soul-searching as we tried to identify what we stood for as a nation and what was the best way to educate our young people so they would not grow up into people who wanted to destroy society.
A set of “British values” were drawn up which all schools – independent, academies and maintained – were then required to promote. Fundamental British values, as they are known, are democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect of those with different faiths and beliefs. In addition, the government started to look for character traits (or virtues) which might be promoted in schools.
The education White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, published in March this year, said that “a 21st-century education should prepare children for adult life by instilling the character traits and fundamental British values that will help them to succeed: being resilient and knowing how to persevere, how to bounce back if faced with failure, and how to collaborate with others at work and in their private lives.”
On the face of it those values and traits seem reasonable enough, but a number of commentators have challenged them. What is so uniquely British about those values? Couldn’t they also be described as Belgian values or Dutch values? The character traits all seem to focus on performance, with very little moral depth. It would be quite possible, after all, to be resilient and collaborative without a moral bone in your body. One would assume that terrorists would have to be resilient and collaborative in order to carry out their hateful work.
For Catholic schools, the values and traits presented to us by government are incomplete. We will of course dutifully promote British values, but within another set of values which we stand for, namely Gospel values.
There are some in Catholic education who would prefer a focus on virtue, since we have a rich theological understanding of virtue, especially the cardinal virtues of faith, hope and charity. This should also be part of the educational DNA of our schools. But in this period of national soul-searching, which has only intensified after the Brexit vote, I believe that the language of values allows us to join the national debate more effectively.
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