31/10/2014

‘Britishness’ and the implications for Montessori Schools and Nurseries

There have been changes to the EYFS requirements and the Independent School Regulations over the summer requiring providers to promote Britishness in their work. This only affects English schools and settings.

The changes follow the Home Office publication of its Prevent Strategy in 2011. This was aimed at countering terrorism and preventing radicalisation. It was incorporated into the independent school regulations this summer and schools are now required 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. (This also applies to state schools).

The School and Early Years Finance (England) Regulations 2014 were published this summer and come into force in January 2014 and use the same form of words as the Independent school regulations, with the addition of not promoting as evidence-based, views and theories which are contrary to established scientific or historical evidence and explanations. At present this will apply only to settings which accept funding for three and four year old places, but we have been told that there will be a consultation later in the year to extend the Britishness requirements to all early years settingsthat is, an amendment to the EYFS, again probably with effect from January 2015. Also in August, the consultation on childminder agencies said that it is not appropriate for public money to go to providers which do not promote fundamental British values.

As ever, the broad statements probably would not be objected to by many people. However problems and uncertainties lie in how providers are supposed to deliver Britishness in their practices.

Some evidence for concerns about what the policy actually means in practice is beginning to appear. This week (October 20th) it has been reported that a private Christian school has been downgraded by Ofsted from good to adequate as it had not invited clerics from other faiths, such as imams,   to conduct assemblies and participate in religious studies lessons. Also two state schools have been criticised by Ofsted. Bolton Parish Church of England School was found to require improvement as spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) aspects and the pupils understanding of modern Britain were not sufficiently developed. The Ofsted report states that collective worship of a Christian nature takes place on a regular basis, and events such as Eid and Diwali are celebrated. However, pupils understanding of life in modern Britain is underdeveloped and opportunities are missed to celebrate the rich religious and cultural diversity within the school. Interestingly the report also states that support for pupils from ethnic minority ethnic groups and those with English as an additional language is good. In the schools EYFS, SMSC is said to be strong and pupils from a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds work exceptionally well together, listen to each other and share books, toys and resources. This last statement provides a useful indicator as to what providers might be doing to show their promotion of aspects of Britishness. St Benedicts Catholic Upper School in Bury St Edmunds was criticised for its younger pupils showing less awareness of the dangers of extremism and radicalisation. There were said to be issues about its work on citizenship not being sufficiently prominent on the schools websiteagain a useful indicator as to what schools and settings might do. The original Ofsted report was withdrawn for further quality assurance checks and the school was revisited on October 10th. The report of that visit is not yet available.

Irrespective of the underlying principles of the new requirements, what should Montessori schools and settings do to meet the new requirements? It is one thing for politicians and others to promote Britishness but what does it mean in practice and how can providers show that they are doing so?

Obviously most providers celebrate a range of religious festivals and cultures already. But there are two aspects to the new requirements: the promotion of British values and awareness of other faiths and beliefs ought to be evident in current policies and practices, and the promotion of awareness of the dangers of radicalism, which is the other side of the Britishness coin. Providers should check that their website, policies and planning provide evidence of addressing the rule of law (for example in promoting respect for the law, for the ground rules of the provision and respect for those who support it, such as the police). The website and planning for multi-faith awareness and wider issues of belief should emphasise tolerance and awareness of how beliefs are demonstrated in ceremonies and festivals. Special activities, such as visits to places of worship, which many settings and schools already make, could be highlighted as an appendix to your policies, and you may wish to buy materials, including books, to extend the childrens awareness of a range of faiths and beliefs. Also, of course, make sure that staff are aware of the need for such work and can discuss it with inspectors. As so often with Ofsted, it is not just a matter of including relevant activities and ideas, but as important is being able to show that you and your staff apply thesetalking the talk is as important as walking the walk.

Clearly for some providers, living in a mono-cultural area poses issuesand this may well be not just a white Christian area. When my son got married a few years ago, the wedding was the first time some Hindu friends had been into a church. In such areas, practices to encourage mutual respect as well as having books, materials and artefacts become even more important. Also make sure that you talk to the inspector about the ways you approach Britishness as well as mentioning any issues you may have in trying to deliver what is a rather loosely defined and elusive concept. Showing that you are aware of the broader anti-terrorism concerns and the need to promote mutual respect and sharing, including supporting parents to share the ethos of your setting, will go a long way to demonstrate that you are seeking to meet the requirements.

Meanwhile, it seems that case law from the outcomes of inspections will help to define more clearly what Britishness means in practice and thus what we are expected to do to promote it. MSA will continue to monitor the situation and keep you in touch with the government expectations.

Dr. Martin Bradley

National Chairman

Montessori Schools Association