Dear Mr Gove
I notice you’ve got yourself into yet another pickle this week. You’ve been telling schools they need to promote British values. Now let’s be honest here, we’re all a bit confused about what ‘British values’ actually are. A straw poll by a friend on Facebook brought up a range of suggestions, most of which I hope you’re not planning to promote in schools. Greed. Cricket. Imperialism. Football hooliganism. Binge drinking. Exploitation. Shooting peasants (not misspelled). Likewise Twitter came up with some helpful ideas under the hashtag #BritishValues.
On the whole, the Daily Telegraph seems less confused than the rest of us. But even they were forced to admit that many of the values we hold dear as a nation can’t be considered uniquely British. Indeed some of them may be far stronger amongst minority communities in these sceptred isles.
Many of us are struggling to understand why you find it necessary to label as ‘British’ values that are considered important the world over. Tolerance. Equality of opportunity. Mutual respect. Freedom. That kind of thing. To annexe these as ‘British’ might almost be considered an act of provocation by other nations, some of whom have a far better record in these areas than we do. In the interests of world peace, I’d like to share some of my own observations of British values, gleaned from my experience as a teacher of English to speakers of other languages. I hope you will find the following helpful in planning any changes to the school curriculum.
Complaining about the weather
This is an essential part of any truly British conversation, regardless of what the weather happens to be like. The vocabulary required is extensive and should be introduced as soon as possible. Isn’t it miserable / dull / horrible / awful / hot / freezing? It’s emptying/ tipping/ bucketing/ wetting / peeing / pissing down. I can’t stand this heat / cold / rain much longer. We could do with a drop of rain / a spot of sunshine. Skills such as how to sound sympathetic, whilst actually feeling gleefully smug that it wasn’t you who left your umbrella on the bus are also quintessentially British.
A value sadly lacking in most other nations, especially those on the far side of the Atlantic. Mind you, I’m not surprised Americans don’t drink tea. The tasteless, grey liquid that was served to me on my only visit to the USA would put anyone off for life. Proper tea should be made in a teapot of course. One should use one spoonful of tea leaves per person, and one for the pot. Don’t forget the tea strainer, the bone china cups and saucers, and the hand-knitted tea cosy.
Whilst we’re on the subject of liquid refreshment. May I remind those who have confused drinking lager with patriotism that lager is not, and never will be, British. Ale is British, and should be served at room temperature in a pint mug with a handle. Lager is a European interloper.
To be honest, the words ‘British’ and ‘cuisine’ don’t collocate well. True British food is often bland, overcooked and a bit of a mystery to anyone brought up on a more interesting and varied diet. In teaching this value it may be best to go for the Full English Breakfast first. Most students find this relatively palatable. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding can be introduced next, but it may be best to exercise caution with the soggy cabbage. Please note that Yorkshire pudding should only be eaten with beef. To eat it with anything else is sacrilege, and most definitely not ‘British’.
Some students struggle with fish and chips, as the practice of slathering said dish with vinegar can cause lasting trauma. Spotted Dick and Toad-in-the-Hole should be reserved for advanced classes …
The primitive urge to kill without good reason has not succumbed to evolutionary progress in some sectors of the British populace, in particular the wealthy and members of the Conservative Party. Having been deprived of the savagery of fox hunting by their more highly-evolved peers, these people have turned their attention to badgers. Although it seems foxes are by no means out of the wood yet.
I realise this list is far from comprehensive, rather like many of our schools these days. Nevertheless, I hope it will give you a few useful pointers on how to approach the thorny issue of teaching British values in schools. Should you require assistance on more pressing matters, such as how to drive more good teachers out of the profession, how to transfer valuable educational assets to your friends and business associates with the minimum of fuss, or how to decimate creativity in the curriculum, please feel free to ask for my advice. You may not like it though.
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