We have written to the Education Secretary urging him to amend the guidance issued by the Department for Education in 2014 on the promotion of British values in schools so it includes a duty to promote free speech. As it stands, the guidance says: “All have a duty to ‘actively 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.” The difficulty with this is that it does not stipulate what should take priority in the event of a conflict arising between the first three fundamental British values and the fourth – leading to the kind of behaviour we witnessed from the headteacher of Batley Grammar School last week. On the face of it, the headteacher could defend his decision to apologise to the protestors, describe his teacher’s use of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as “completely inappropriate” and suspend him from duty on the grounds that he is complying with his obligation to actively promote “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.
You could argue that asking schools to promote “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” does not require schools to grant religious groups a veto over what is taught in the classroom because doing so would be disrespecting secular humanism, which should enjoy the same protections as religious faiths. However, in practice schools typically interpret the need to promote “mutual respect and tolerance” as requiring them to prioritise the sacred beliefs of some faiths above others, as we saw in this case. The head clearly thought his obligation to respect the beliefs of the Muslim protestors at the school gates trumped his obligation to respect the secular beliefs of his Religious Studies teacher.
We have therefore asked the Education Secretary to add the following sentence to the official guidance, making it clear that freedom of expression should take priority over the avoidance of giving offense: “Schools should also ‘actively promote’ the British value of free speech and in the event of some people being offended by a school’s upholding of that right, freedom of expression within the law should take priority.”Letter-to-Gavin-Williamson-26.03.21