Teaching kids not‑so‑liberal values

After terrorist attacks, politicians often make statements insisting that Britain’s values be upheld. And schools are often pointed to as sites where the next generation is socialised into society’s values.

Until the last quarter of the 20th century, these values were broadly considered to be liberal. In the realm of culture, this meant accepting Enlightenment concepts of human rationality and morality. Truth, freedom and autonomy were the ideals which shaped discussion among educators, politicians and policymakers.

Unfortunately, in education, these ideals have since been either denigrated or rejected. Many teachers now feel that they have little authority and freedom of their own, relying on external authorities to hand down a prescribed set of values for them to use in the classroom.

I was reminded of this at this year’s Telegraph Festival of Education. On one panel, an assistant headteacher at a Birmingham primary school explained how his school used the 2010 Equality Act to teach kids about diversity. For example, books were no longer selected on the basis of their quality, but on how diverse they were, in terms of the author or the characters.

Educators are behaving like indoctrinators, and pushing an anti-Enlightenment, particularist line. Rather than promoting inclusivity, this fetishisation of diversity actually reifies personal difference. Teaching kids to be careful about protected characteristics or supposedly vulnerable social groups is anti-universal – it encourages kids to see their peers as different to them on the basis of gender, race or sexuality.

When schools refuse to adhere to prescribed diversity guidelines, the consequences are often severe. Take Vishnitz Girls School, a Jewish private school in north London. Vishnitz was recently failed by Ofsted, for the third time in a row, for refusing to teach its pupils about homosexuality. Of course, few teachers would allow bullying or homophobic behaviour. But is forcing a religious school to include homosexuality in the curriculum really an important educational requirement?

In forcing schools to preach to kids about diversity, politicians and policymakers are denigrating universalism and freedom. This Equality Act-based approach is an affront to the liberal values that once shaped education. It also takes teachers’ time and energy away from giving kids a proper education, and instead loads them with a political agenda.

In these turbulent times, schools should encourage the next generation to be open and honest in their interactions with one another. In order to do that, we need to promote proper liberal values.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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