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16th Jul 2021 10:13am Blogs

Let’s teach about the fundamental British values as citizenship concepts

Using British values as the basis of critical deliberative conversations.

Let’s teach about the fundamental British values as citizenship concepts rather than ‘promote’ them as values.

Lee Jerome

A few years ago I collaborated with ACT and the English Speaking Union on a project called The Deliberative Classroom. Our approach was to take the fundamental British values as the basis of critical deliberative conversations, rather than the object of simple ‘promotion’. The DfE funded the project because they were interested in finding a way to promote more informed debate of controversial issues and the FBVs. Our approach was to take the concepts (democracy, the rule of law, liberty and toleration) and to devise a series of classroom oracy activities so that students could deepen their understanding of how these ideas played out in practice and how they often existed in tension.

You can see the resources here, there’s a handbook on what we mean by deliberation, a resource pack on religious freedom and another on political violence. Basically, deliberative debates are different from competitive (for / against) style debates because they focus on finding common ground. The purpose is to understand why people have different views and look for some form of consensus. In order to do that, deliberation requires listening, empathy, a willingness to negotiate, and an openness to be questioned by others.

I also had the opportunity to follow up with a small research project, to see what deliberation looked like in practice and to listen in to students’ conversations in class. This led to two outcomes, first a lesson observation proforma, designed to be used as a CPD tool with colleagues, and second some amazing transcripts of deliberative talk.

My co-researchers, Anna Liddle and Helen Young, and I have also published a couple of open-access articles reflecting on some of the lessons learned from the project. In an article called “Talking Tolerance” we focused on an amazing conversation between members of a debate club in a secondary school. For us this really proves the power of adopting this critical citizenship approach to the FBVs. In this Church of England Academy school, a religiously mixed group of students discussed the school’s religious ethos and how it was experienced by students of different faiths and none. Giving them the space to reflect, listen, and build on one another’s arguments showed the students were entirely capable of balancing rights sensitively, of reaching pragmatic solutions and demonstrating sympathy for others.

In a second article Talking about rights without talking about rights we reflected on some of the lessons where things didn’t go quite as smoothly. In some cases students were able to complete the tasks without really getting to grips with the underlying knowledge of human rights concepts. In thinking about what did and didn’t work we argue there are four principles to inform teachers’ planning:

1.    We need to be explicit about what human rights are and how they work. It’s not good enough to use case studies that illustrate human rights in practice (e.g. right to protest, right to religious freedom), or tensions between rights. We need to spell this out, otherwise it can be glossed over.
2.    Case studies from real life are great for generating empathy but we also need a plan for how we can move students beyond seeing them as inter-personal problems to be resolved individually, and towards seeing them as manifestations of bigger political issues.
3.    Classrooms are busy places and there’s lots to get through. Students have been taught that problems have answers and that they should identify them within a given timescale. But deliberation needs more time, a willingness to live with uncertainty, and often resists a definite ‘solution’. We need to set this out explicitly and dissuade students from a speedy consensus.
4.    Students often relate case studies of people’s lives to their own life experience, but more rarely relate them to knowledge they have gained elsewhere in school. Again, we think teachers have a vital role in signposting the connections to be made, e.g. between citizenship, the FBVs, PSHE, RE, history, geography, literature, art etc.

Our conclusion is that there is great promise to teaching about the FBVs in this way and applying them to complex political problems. Classroom deliberation provides an excellent strategy for achieving a nuanced understanding of toleration, freedom and the rule of law, but it also takes some skilled and deliberate teacher facilitation to ensure the talk is as productive as possible. The resources we developed might help you to achieve this, but we’re all relying on skilled and thoughtful teachers to make it work.