Flow of Ideas

The Binding Ring: Communitarianism for Schools on a Foundation of ‘British Values’?

Glenn Rikowski, London, 24th February 2008

A paper prepared for the EDU3004 module, ‘Education, Culture & Society’, Education Studies, School of Education, University of Northampton


In 1995-96, there was a “moral panic” about morality itself, and for some, such as Nick Tate, head of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) the solution was to “teach values” in schools. The degeneration of values seemed to be an aspect of many areas of social life in the UK and other advanced capitalist societies. Films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1995) and Brian Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1994) had raised issues about whether Western, ‘postmodern’ society had descended into ‘nihilism’. At the time, John Major’s Conservative government was trying to recover from its disastrous ‘back to basics’ campaign, whilst still encouraging the development of morality in its education policy.

For some, such as Daniel Bell (1995), communitarianism was a solution to a perceived nihilism, individualism, cynicism and despair and the moral decay that appeared to be affecting social life in contemporary society in the West. On this count, communitarianism had a key role for schools regarding moral regeneration and for re-building “community”.

When New Labour came to power in 1997 it was still in search of some principles that could guide its Project. Communitarianism was just one of the ideas it flirted with in government at the turn of the millennium (see Rikowski, 2000). However, communitarian ideas, now falling under the umbrella of “British values”, have continued to be utilised by New Labour; the more so since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister.


The key figure in contemporary communitarian thought is Amitai Etzioni, an American sociologist and social critic. His book, The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda, was the touchstone for those seeking an alternative to the individualistic, relativistic and greed-inducing instrumentalism of contemporary society. It was a response to Reaganism and Thatcherism. Etzioni’s (1995) strategy was to take the 1950s as a moral template on which to argue for re-building community in America. For Etzioni, society is “out of balance” regarding rights and responsibilities; rights predominate.

The communitarian movement flowered in the 1990s, with significant works from Daniel Bell and Alasdair MacIntyre to add to Etzioni’s. Bill Clinton also took on some of communitarian spirit to distance himself from the Reagan years (Jordan, 1999, p.115), just as Blair attempted to distance himself from Thatcherism and Old Labour (though he went on to embrace Thatcher’s neoliberalism in education and economic policy).

As Melanie Phillips (1997) argued when reviewing Etzioni’s book: “There is no doubt about the significance of Amitai Etzioni in current political debate” (p.68). Etzioni argued that:

“No society can function well unless most of its members “behave” most of the time because they voluntarily heed their moral commitments and social responsibilities” (in Bowring, 1997, p.93).

Etzioni placed emphasis on ‘traditions’ as the basis for these shared community values and moral commitments. He perceived these to be under threat in America and the West. Hence the need for schools to morally re-arm future citizens on a foundation of traditional moral values – values that would bind us together, functioning as a kind of ‘social glue’ (Economist, 2008).

Communitarianism and Education

Etzioni (1995) believed that the family was the starting-point for re-building communities and community life. However, he held that it was too weak to do this on its own; the values of individualism were too strong there. In light of this, Etzioni viewed schools as being particularly important institutions for generating the values that the new citizen could take with them back into life outside the school, thence to rebuild community. Etzioni argued that:

“We hold that schools can provide essential moral education – without indoctrinating young people” (1995, p.1).

Mark Smith (2004), using the work of James Arthur (2003), has summarised the communitarian approach to education and school life as follows:

* The family should be the primary moral educator of children
* ‘Character education’ includes the systematic teaching of virtue in schools
* The ethos of the community has an educative function in school life
* Schools should promote the rights and responsibilities inherent within citizenship
* Community service is an important part of a child’s education in school
* A major purpose of the school curriculum is to teach social and political life-skills
* Schools should provide an active understanding of the common good
* Religious schools are able to operate a strong version of the communitarian perspective
* Many existing community-based education practices reflect the features of the communitarian perspective
* Schools should adopt a democratic structure of operating

Arthur (2003) seems to be more optimistic regarding what the family can do to promote “community” than does Etzioni, but this may reflect the more severe crisis of family life in America as compared with Britain.

SCAA Faced Values for Education?

The SCAA followed Etzioni in holding that schools had a key role to play in regenerating community via shared values. In January 1996, a conference organised by Nick Tate, chief executive of SCAA, was held in London on Education for Adult Life. Charter and Sherman (1996), reporting on the issue of a code of values for schools in The Times a few weeks before the conference, and drawing on an interview with Nick Tate, suggested that the following values for teaching in schools might emerge from the conference: honesty; respect for others; politeness; a sense of fair play; forgiveness; punctuality; non-violent behaviour; patience; faithfulness; and self-discipline. Charter and Sherman noted that Nick Tate was ‘a family man whose strong Christian faith has been a key motivator in his professional life’ who also believes that ‘personal and social education should have more formal objectives’, one of these being contributing to the maintenance of the two-parent family (Ibid.). A direct quote from Tate indicated that:

“Schools should be outspoken in support of the traditional family where children learn traditional values and the art of setting up a family” (in Charter and Sherman, 1996).

In the event, the actual conference did not come out with a list of universal and abstract values underpinned with yearnings for a reconstituted family life. Rather, the conference agreed to set up a National Forum for Values in Education and the Community. This Forum comprised 150 people, most ‘of whom were nominated by national organisations concerned with young people and education’ (QCA, 1997) and started to meet in 1996 and continued meeting in 1997.

In July 1996 SCAA deemed the time ripe for publishing its detailed views on moral education for schools (SCAA, 1996). What I find particularly interesting about this document is the varied sources held to be undermining values in British society listed therein. For SCAA, these included: dominant intellectual currents (with moral relativism); the loss of moral discernment amongst the youth; the loss of respect for national leaders (temporal and spiritual); materialism and greed; the fragmentation of the family and the collapse of historic communities (through poverty and unemployment and industrial change); technological developments (resulting in a loss of control over people’s lives); and the lack of a common language over morality (with a plethora of conceptions and interpretations of ‘moral’, ‘values’ and ‘attitudes’ and other related concepts) (pp.8-9). These were the social and economic trends that SCAA hoped a new moral education would address.

The Forum also conducted a consultation exercise (National Forum for Values in Education and the Community, 1996) which did in fact lead to the stipulation of a wide range of values in October 1996 – much wider than a ‘10 commandments’ moral code as suggested by Charter and Sherman (1996). Detailed values in relation to the following areas of human activity were outlined: society; relationships; the self; and the environment (National Forum for Values in Education and the Community, 1996). The values on society to be nurtured in schools were:

“We value truth, human rights, the law, justice and collective endeavour for the common good of society. In particular we value families as sources of love and support for all their members and as the basis of a society in which people care for others” (Ibid, p.3).

Of course, these values might come into conflict with each other. Furthermore, it could be argued that the pious and utopian nature of these values neglects to situate them within the society in which we live: capitalist society.

The National Forum’s efforts to pin down values that schools should incorporate into the curriculum were savaged in the press. Even some of the National Forum’s members were critical. Right-winger Anthony O’Hear, a National Forum member, argued that the consultation paper was the ‘usual mish-mash of soft-centred waffle about respect for persons, equality, environmental awareness and political correctness’ (in Macleod, 1996).

From the Left, Doug McAvoy, then general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, noted that:

“Schools cannot cure the ills of society. Nor would it be effective to impose on them the teaching of a moral code that is not reflected in society” (in Judd, 1996).

Whilst Kate Soper argued that:

“Our schools are havens of morality compared with the finance markets and boardrooms of arms exporters” (1996).

Macleod (1996) noted a Cambridge University survey conducted earlier in 1996 that found ‘new teachers were uneasy about imposing what they saw as white middle-class values’. School students interviewed by Judith Judd (1996) argued that there was no point teaching a moral code as concocted by the National Forum as it was ‘common sense’, that parents have the main responsibility for this and that different religions have their own moral codes anyway (e.g. in the Koran). Clyde Chitty (1997) argued that the National Forum moral strictures were bound to shatter on the fact that there is pluralism regarding moral values in contemporary Britain:

“It can, of course, be argued that the idea that morality is teachable is itself absurd. Not only is there precious little consensus within society at large, as to what constitutes ‘morality’, but also the approach itself is likely to prove pretty counter-productive. … It seems clear that the moral climate in our schools, and in society as a whole, is not going to be transformed by a return to ‘traditional’ moral values. Resorting to moral absolutism will do much to discredit classroom teachers in the eyes of teenagers who are far too knowledgeable and sophisticated to accept all the old moral precepts without question.”

Even the National Forum’s own opinion poll on teaching moral values in schools indicated that only 51% of parents were keen that children should be taught the difference between right and wrong (in Macleod, 1996). Geoff Mulgan, a New Labour adviser, was also sceptical, arguing that:

“The first fundamental error is the belief that virtue and morality can be taught rather than learned. … The best moral education is not based on chalk and talk, but on practical experiences, preferably outside the classroom, in which children learn to take responsibility, to deal with other people’s needs, and to reflect continuously on the moral nature of their choices” (Mulgan, 1996).

However, something substantive did come out of the National Forum’s work. First, it hastened a move towards including citizenship education in the National Curriculum. Secondly, an AS-level in critical thinking was also part of the legacy of the National Forum.

The Binding Ring: ‘British Values’

Although the SCAA (which was abolished and became part of a new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority when New Labour came to power) and the National Forum’s ambitious plans for moral education were only marginally successful in themselves, the question of teaching morality in schools did not go away. It should be remembered that the SCAA/National Forum process was started near the end of John Major’s Conservative administration. Thus, when New Labour came to office in May 1997 there was no obligation to see the process through.

New Labour pursued the issue of teaching morality through bringing in citizenship education (which was partly inspired by SCAA), expanding faith schools significantly (which Nick Tate would have approved of) and enshrining the necessity for all schools to develop their own ‘ethos’ in the Education and Inspections Act of 2006.

Yet Gordon Brown, both as New Labour Chancellor and then Prime Minister, appeared to want something more: schools teach specifically ‘British’, and not universal, values. For Brown, the verbose lists of values set out by SCAA and the National Forum seemed too many and too vague. He proposed instead a focus on three core values of ‘Britishness’: liberty, tolerance and fair play. He made this pitch in a speech to the British Council’s Annual Lecture for 2004 (Brown, 2004). Brown sought to derive his foundational values not from God (a la Nick Tate) but from the long road of British historical experience:

“Because our history has made us remarkably outward-looking and open, this country has fostered a vigorously adaptable society and has given rise to a culture both creative and inventive. But an open and adapting society also needs to be rooted, and Britain’s roots are on the most solid foundation of all – a passion for liberty anchored in a sense of duty and an intrinsic commitment to tolerance and fair play” (2004, p.1).

He presented these values as being part of British traditions; in line with a communitarian outlook ripe for British soil. Whilst Brown was aware of objections to casting Britain as a society embedded in liberty, tolerance and fair play, and that British history ‘is strewn with examples of how we failed to live up to our ideals’ (2004, p.2), he nevertheless provided historical examples that, he claimed, showed these values to be part of what it means to be ‘British’. Following 7/7, the institution of new laws to purportedly fight the ‘war on terror’ whilst undermining civil liberties, presiding over British society which has more CCTV cameras than anywhere on earth and has more people locked up in jails than any other European country, and a reluctance to get rid of the toughest labour laws in any advanced capitalist country – Brown continued to extol the apparently peculiarly ‘British’ values he had located earlier. A few months before his bid to become Prime Minister got under way officially, he argued that:

“A strong sense of being British helps unite and unify us; it builds stronger social cohesion among communities. We know that other countries have a strong sense of national purpose, even a sense of their own identity. And so should we” (Brown, 2007, p.2).

Brown went on to link this statement to ‘a stronger element teaching us about citizenship in the curriculum’ in schools, and to citizenship ceremonies, and citizenship tests for immigrants (Ibid.).

Finally, after he became Prime Minister, and when he was still pondering whether to call a General Election, Brown argued for the importance of ‘Britishness’ in a key speech ‘peppered with 81 references to “Britain” or “British” (Webster, 2007). Thus, he has set the climate for more interventions in schools based on a perceived need weld British society together; to give it greater community cohesion – in true communitarian fashion.

Conclusion [1]

Communitarianism has alarming implications and consequences for individual freedom and can offer no coherent model of values education. The SCAA/National Forum approach resulted in a universalistic, “top-down” approach where middle-class, utopian, Christian-inspired values were to be imposed on children in increasingly multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic schools. Communitarianism incorporates a totalitarian approach to “community” committed to overpowering individuals as rational value-creators. Moralities set by the “community” through traditions (in Brown’s case Britain with its ‘British values’) set the yardstick for individual behaviour and are deemed superior to any liberal moralities based on freedom as they aid community cohesion – which is the whole raison de ętre for moral values in the first place for communitarianism. Communitarianism’s uncritical focus on tradition allows people like Gordon Brown to attempt to reclaim ‘British traditions’ as an unproblematic foundation for a project imposing some apparently time-honoured values on us via schools and social policy initiatives.

An alternative values education for schools could be allied to a renewal of the social sciences in the school curriculum. This would allow school students to view the social and historical contexts in which moral choices are made. They then might see that any simplistic appeal to ‘British’ or any other stone-encased set of values would be inadequate and that it would be a barrier to social understanding and therefore constitute a block on progressive social change.


[1] Some of the points made in this Conclusion come from discussion held with Phil Badger in 1996 for a paper we wanted to write together, but never completed, called Overpowering Community? Communitarianism and the Defence of Liberal Educational Values.


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© Glenn Rikowski, 24th February 2008

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