In November 2014 the Coalition Government called on schools to actively promote ‘fundamental British values’ (FBVs), which it considered to be democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance. This initiative was part of the more encompassing Prevent Strategy, the aim of which is to thwart the radicalization of young people. The government also proposed a number of actions schools can take to promote FBVs, such as offering citizenship education, encouraging open debates on social and political issues, and organising democratic practices in school. It restricted its advice to primary and lower secondary education, however. Sixth form and further education colleges were given little guidance on how to promote FBVs.
The policy immediately attracted a lot of criticism from scholars and teachers. The label of ‘fundamentally British’ was seen as inappropriate as the values referred to are universal human values theoretically endorsed by many countries. Others criticized the connection with the Prevent strategy, which, in their view, meant that the government was covertly targeting ethnic minorities, and Muslim youth in particular, with the policy. However, neither the government nor academia bothered to check how strong the support for the four values labelled as ‘fundamentally British’ actually is among young people and whether education, in one way or another, can inculcate FVBs. I addressed these gaps by analysing data of the Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study (CELS).
My study has a number of surprises in store for the government. First, I found that support for FBVs among 23 year olds is already very high: on a scale from 1 (minimal support) to 5 (maximum support), the mean score is 4 and 97.5% of the respondents score higher than the neutral midpoint of 3. This casts doubt on the necessity of promoting FBVs still further. Second, minority groups, including Muslim minorities, do not show lower levels of support for FBVs than the white majority. In view of the universal character of the values labelled as FBVs (as already noted), this is actually not surprising. Indeed, one study found that teachers of Muslim heritage considered these values to be compatible with, rather than antithetical to, Islam. Third, and most importantly, the school activities suggested by the government, such as citizenship education and democratic practices, are not related to support for FBVs. In contrast, post-16 educational track does show a strong effect: those with vocational qualifications such as an NVQ or Btech have significantly lower levels of support for FBVs than those with academic qualifications such as A levels or a degree. This effect holds when all relevant controls are added to the analysis, indicating it is genuine and not a reflection of young people with lagging support for FBVs from the onset enrolling in vocational tracks (the latter would represent a so-called selection effect). Thus education does influence the adoption of FBVs but not in ways expected by the government.
Does this result mean that the activities suggested by the government are altogether ineffective strategies to promote FBVs? No, that would be a premature conclusion. But it does suggest that the government has targeted the wrong age group with these activities. We know from the political science literature that young people only become interested in social and political affairs in late adolescence and early adulthood. It would thus make more sense to concentrate any socialization efforts on this life stage, i.e. the period in life that young people are much more receptive to input influencing their civic and political engagement.
In fact, the finding on educational track supports the idea that the curriculum, open discussions of topical issues and democratic practices do matter. Particularly in England, curriculum differences between the post-16 tracks are huge, with vocational tracks not offering any courses that are likely to be conducive for political engagement, such as citizenship education, general studies or history. Other research found that the emphasis in vocational tracks is more on fostering practical skills and social manners than on independent analysis and critical thinking. Teachers in such tracks are less likely to encourage open discussions of political issues and to give students a say in teaching and learning as they fear a disruption of order within the class. Given these very different educational experiences, it is not surprising that students in the vocational tracks are not as supportive of FBVs.
In sum, my findings do not give the government much reason to be concerned about young people’s overall support for basic democratic values. Mean levels of support hide inequalities, however, and these happen to be pronounced across educational tracks. If the government wishes to mitigate such inequalities, it should seriously consider instituting a compulsory and uniform course of citizenship education across tracks in upper secondary. This course should be similar in both content and delivery.
This blog is based on an article published in the British Educational Research Journal (Vol. 44, No. 2): Educational influences on young people’s support for fundamental British values.