Rhinegold

Michaela Duckett

Cultural connections

8:00, 18th October 2017

Michaela Duckett asks what it means to uphold British values, and suggests how to incorporate them into the classroom

Recently I’ve been asking myself how music education in schools can help 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.

Since 2011, then amended and reinforced in 2014, the Department for Education published guidance on promoting British values in schools to ‘ensure young people leave school prepared for life in modern Britain’ and ‘to strengthen barriers against extremism’. And, since 2011, school leaders and those involved in social, moral, spiritual and cultural education have been busying about, asking departments to complete British values ‘audits’ and fussing about displays – while Union Jack bunting has been printed off in reams as depleted red, white and blue paper resources are earmarked for visual ‘Britishness’.

Don’t get me started on why these values have been determined ‘British’ – it’s a rather grey area, and we all know how British history isn’t exactly pure and virtuous. But there it is, in black and white from the Department of Education: it must be important if every department will be scrutinised and Ofsted are looking out for it.

Embedding values
So what can we do as music educators to satisfy the very British appetites of Ofsted inspectors? Firstly, before anyone gets hot under the collar about the ‘Britishness’ part of these values, they are actually universally excellent values for young people to recognise and live by, and they are increasingly important in the modern world. In my school, no harm has been done or time wasted ensuring that British values are embedded within the music curriculum – a few simple tweaks to the delivery of lessons have shown such positive results that I now firmly believe in fostering this approach.

shutterstock_397788388Since I have consciously referenced British values and musicians within the music curriculum, I have noticed the students engage in a really interested way, as they have felt not only a geographical but a cultural connection which transcends racial or religious differences. I teach in a multicultural urban school with a sizeable proportion of students new to the UK, not only from Europe but also from the Middle East and Africa. As teachers we have the responsibility to these new students to uphold and explain British values, and it in their case it seems reasonable to do so in order to aid understanding of their new environment. However, it has become increasingly apparent to me that British-born students have also appreciated the cultural references, and recognised achievement and diversity while also feeling a sense of unity.

A music department that has a broad and established curriculum, a code of conduct that students follow and a variety of extra-curricular opportunities is already promoting British Values by nature of its structure. So delivering British Values should be an explanation of what already exists rather than a laborious addition to the teacher workload.

For example, at my school in Year 7, all students participate in the First Access scheme and learn to play the violin in a whole class setting for the entire year. This is in collaboration with the local music hub and has been hugely successful and popular as students engage practically with learning to play an instrument alongside reading music and basic theory. Throughout the scheme, we decided to profile Nicola Benedetti as a role model to young violinists. It really is as simple as the students thinking, ‘Well, if she’s British and can play that well, then so could I’.

Thread of continuity
What Britishness currently looks like is very diverse. I have made a display in the corridor outside the main teaching room in the music department that profiles many British musicians, and as well as Nicola Bendetti there is Bryn Terfel, Tinie Tempah, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Emeli Sandé. The students show great interest in this because of the range of music genres and the different racial, cultural, spiritual and religious backgrounds represented – with the thread of continuity being Britishness. It’s important to state that I have selected musical artists who uphold British values – it would have been possible to pick other British musicians who would not have sat so well in a display of this kind.

Within a music department, as soon as a performance of any kind takes place, students are subjecting themselves to criticism from their peers, staff and themselves. Promoting mutual respect by helping students deliver non-offensive and useful feedback has been extremely valuable. Opening up a dialogue with students about how to give feedback is good practice anyway – but once linked to the British value of ‘mutual respect’ I have seen students become more thoughtful and balanced in their advice. They become citizens. They behave in an entirely different manner – more tolerant, mature and respectful.

A scheme of work that I always look forward to delivering in Key Stage 3 is ‘Folk Music of the British Isles’. Partly because I am a fiddler, partly because the music lends itself so well to a class band format (melody, chords, rhythm) and partly because I feel that in the (English) schools I’ve taught at, the students are unaware of the traditional music of the country that they live in. An upbeat jig or reel has a gift for infectiously engaging the students regardless of their faith and beliefs, and although this scheme does not directly enforce British values it does reveal to them some ‘Britishness’ that should be valued.

Certainly, it seems too much to expect students of any background to be able to develop a sense of British Values without specific guidance. In times gone by, a map of the British Empire was up in every classroom and students were told something of the establishment they were, unavoidably, a part of. With the published guidelines of 2011/2014, we have an opportunity to approach this anew, in our own ways, with our own words.

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