Yesterday, Mr Gove fundamentally changed the rules about how schools in England operate. In answer to a question from Duncan Hames, a backbench Liberal Democrat MP, Mr Gove said:
Michael Gove: That is a very good point. Today we have outlined that we plan to consult on independent school standards, so that schools that are not funded by the taxpayer must meet basic standards of promoting British values, or the Education Secretary will have the capacity to close them down.
Now, I always understood that the State didn’t interfere in the freedom of an individual to educate their children as they saw fit within the law. The State’s role was to provide education for those that didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t provide an education for their children. The fact that most parents since 1870 have passed the obligation to educate their children to the State didn’t alter the basis on which State education was founded. That is until yesterday.
I can understand a requirement on a school not to teach terrorism, but I believe it is a long and worrying leap from there to the commandment that schools must promote British values or they will be closed down. What of the Lycee Francais, its German equivalent, or even the American school? Must they ditch their cultural identity within the curriculum in favour of only British values? Cricket not baseball; field hockey not ice hockey, isolationism not integration? And what about the home schoolers, are they now also to be monitored for British values, and parents told they cannot continue if Ofsted doesn’t think they are British enough?
I am not sure that I subscribe to such a totalitarian attitude, where a politician can decide on what represents British values, and prevent a parent from espousing any other set of values that is within the law. Take respect for the armed forces, whose ‘day’ we celebrate in a fortnight’s time. Can schools now teach about ‘white poppies’ as well as red ones, or will a Minister rule that not pulling together in memory of past wars is contrary to British values?
Even more fundamental is the issue of gender segregation in schools. Is it a British value to permit schools for either boys or girls, but not to allow gender separation within schools? What of the balance between rugged individualism and rigid conformity to social norms? Can they co-exist as British values or must we sacrifice one in favour of the other? There are lessons from history here that surely won’t have escaped the Secretary of State when he rose to answer the question from Mr Hames.
The Secretary of State is now in charge of all education content in England, not however in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland as it is a devolved power, in these areas as it is in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Not bad, for a Minister that created schools free from any national curriculum earlier in the same parliament.
As –U- turns go, this seems like that of a super-tanker not a black cab.