British Values and SMSC: The Department for Education Getting it Wrong

The seriousness of the Department for Education’s latest “guidance” document cannot be overstated.

DfE Values

At the end of November 2014, presumably following recent Ofsted reports in Tower Hamlets and the Trojan Horse debacle in Birmingham –as well as the government’s insistence on using this undefinable term “British values”, the DfE produced a document called “Promoting fundamental British values as part of SMSC in schools”.

It’s an interesting read – extremely alarming, in fact.

At NO point throughout the entire document does the Department for Education manage to define the term “British values”. Why? Patently, they can’t be defined because they don’t exist.

The values of respect, tolerance and individual liberty are not values that are unique to Britain. They may be valued by the large majority of British citizens but that doesn’t make them “British”.

British values and flag

The Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) development of the child has been an integral part of the offer to our young people since the 1944 Butler Education Act. In 1989, when the National Curriculum came into being, there was a significant reference to SMSC. This has been developed throughout the decades with the government offering some clear guidance as to what this term actually means, and Ofsted allegedly inspecting a schools’ ability to promote SMSC even though it isn’t a judgement criteria.

At NO point, in any of the documents relating to SMSC has there EVER been reference to “British values”.

Until now.

You can read the latest guidance in the link above and compare it with Ofsted’s own document on SMSC – “Promoting and evaluating pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development”. – and yes, we know that Ofsted are ‘independent’ from the government but the reality is that any document that comes from Ofsted must not contravene government policy and is presumably drawn up in the full view of civil servants working at the DfE.

Here is a brief summary of the new “Values” guidance from a 3Di perspective.

Values and world mapStarting with the introduction, there’s a technical issue about who this guidance is for. It states at the beginning of the document that the guidance is for “maintained schools” – not “state-funded schools”. Whilst this may sound pedantic, this means that the guidance isn’t for academies and free schools. Presumably, it’s not for schools that receive funding or sponsorship from – let’s say the Catholic Church or Church of England diocese schools either. It would take an Act of Parliament to change the law relating to SMSC in schools and therefore this guidance can only be for “maintained” schools, such is the nature of our divisive education system.

This is so wrong.

The introduction continues with a diatribe about respecting the law and that if religious laws are studied, then it must be made apparent to young people that there might be a difference between state and religious law.

Its next section is entitled, “Fundamental British values”.

So where and why did the word “fundamental” come into the equation? Is this the government’s attempt to reclaim the word for its own form of absolutism?

A virtuous value, owned, understood and applied by all, doesn’t require this additional adjective.

Here’s a direct quote from this section.

“Schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”

“Actively promoting the values means challenging opinions or behaviours in school that are contrary to fundamental British values. Attempts to promote systems that undermine fundamental British values would be completely at odds with schools’ duty to provide SMSC. The Teachers’ Standards expect teachers to uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour, within and outside school. This includes not undermining fundamental British values.”

Here we have the first implicit alteration to the term SMSC. So the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of the child is now all about being British – whatever that actually means.

It continues with a list of things a school should do to promote SMSC, and this is where it gets both interesting and alarming.

“Through their provision of SMSC, schools should:

  • enable students to develop their self-knowledge, self-esteem and self-confidence;

  • enable students to distinguish right from wrong and to respect the civil and criminal law of England;

  • encourage students to accept responsibility for their behaviour, show initiative, and to understand how they can contribute positively to the lives of those living and working in the locality of the school and to society more widely;

  • enable students to acquire a broad general knowledge of and respect for public institutions and services in England;

  • further tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions by enabling students to acquire an appreciation of and respect for their own and other cultures;

  • encourage respect for other people; and

  • encourage respect for democracy and support for participation in the democratic processes, including respect for the basis on which the law is made and applied in England.”

At first glance, there are some completely acceptable points here. We want our children and young people to “develop their self-knowledge, self-esteem and self-confidence”. We want them to be able to distinguish between right and wrong, accept responsibility for their behaviour, show initiative and so on and so forth. We want them to respect themselves and others, and all of these behaviours and attitudes should be part of what a school offers young people in the name of SMSC. But when did SMSC suddenly become primarily about democracy, the law and respecting public institutions in England?

At NO point in the Ofsted guidance to schools on SMSC does it explicitly refer to democracy, the law or state institutions.

SMSC and parliamentTo confirm this, it might be worth looking at Ofsted’s interpretation of SMSC. They are listed in the footnote at the bottom of this post.

The spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of the child is NOT a political football. This is a vital component of education and should never be used to promote a particular mode of behaviour other than to promote a shared set of human values that are virtuous to the point of it being impossible to argue against their significance. For the government to stick their ridiculous “British values” mantra onto this important aspect of learning that’s been in existence, quite rightly, for years, is intolerable – and yes, we know we ought to be tolerant but not when it undermines the rights of the child to a valuable, un-indoctrinated education.

The document continues with an offering of results if a school promotes the still undefined “British values”. These include a young person’s knowledge and understanding of how citizens can participate in the democratic principles of Britain, of how the law protects them, of public accountability, of the freedom to hold a faith or belief, of respecting others’ beliefs and of identifying and combatting discrimination.

Again, all these points are valid – many should be part of a proper programme of Citizenship but to have them joined onto the SMSC component of education isn’t quite right and is a little dangerous. Why? Because the entire understanding of the acronym is ambiguous already. If schools are given what is deemed as guidance on SMSC in this form, then these areas will become their priority, not the wider and more valuable interpretation of SMSC as outlined through the Ofsted definitions (if not always carried through by its inspectorate.)

The “Promoting Fundamental British Values” document concludes with some ideas for schools.

  • include in suitable parts of the curriculum, as appropriate for the age of pupils, material on the strengths, advantages and disadvantages of democracy, and how democracy and the law works in Britain, in contrast to other forms of government in other countries;

  • ensure that all pupils within the school have a voice that is listened to, and demonstrate how democracy works by actively promoting democratic processes such as a school council whose members are voted for by the pupils;

  • use opportunities such as general or local elections to hold mock elections to promote fundamental British values and provide pupils with the opportunity to learn how to argue and defend points of view;

  • use teaching resources from a wide variety of sources to help pupils understand a range of faiths, and

  • consider the role of extra-curricular activity, including any run directly by pupils, in promoting fundamental British values.

The insistence on pupils’ having a voice is the final irony, as is the suggestion of finding “suitable parts of the curriculum” to study other countries in our Gove-imposed Anglo-Centric offering to young people.

As for the last bullet point, what the hell does that mean? Would this enable a young person to set up an after school club looking at an Eastern philosophy’s perspective on tolerance and respect, or is that not British enough?

This entire document is reactive to incidents. If the department of education wants to promote the teaching and learning of human values, then we are 100% behind them. The problem is that’s not what their current stance on “values” is all about.




FOOTNOTE:  Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural education as defined by Ofsted

Their definitions for each of the terms are as follows.

  1. Spiritual – Spiritual development is the development of the non-material element of a human being which animates and sustains us and, depending on our point of view, either ends or continues in some form when we die. It is about the development of a sense of identity, self-worth, personal insight, meaning and purpose. It is about the development of a pupil’s ‘spirit’. Some people may call it the development of a pupil’s ‘soul’; others as the development of ‘personality’ or ‘character’.
  2. Moral – Moral development is about the building, by pupils, of a framework of moral values which regulates their personal behaviour. It is also about the development of pupils’ understanding of society’s shared and agreed values. It is about understanding that there are issues where there is disagreement and it is also about understanding that society’s values change. Moral development is about gaining an understanding of the range of views and the reasons for the range. It is also about developing an opinion about the different views.
  3. Social – Social development is about young people working effectively with each other and participating successfully in the community as a whole. It is about the development of the skills and personal qualities necessary for living and working together. It is about functioning effectively in a multi-racial, multi-cultural society. It involves growth in knowledge and understanding of society in all its aspects. This includes understanding people as well as understanding society’s institutions, structures and characteristics, economic and political principles and organisations, roles and responsibilities and life as a citizen, parent or worker in a community. It also involves the development of the inter-personal skills necessary for successful relationships.
  4. Cultural – Cultural development is about pupils’ understanding their own culture and other cultures in their town, region and in the country as a whole. It is about understanding cultures represented in Europe and elsewhere in the world. It is about understanding and feeling comfortable in a variety of cultures and being able to operate in the emerging world culture of shared experiences provided by television, travel and the internet. It is about understanding that cultures are always changing and coping with change. Promoting pupils’ cultural development is intimately linked with schools’ attempts to value cultural diversity and prevent racism.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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