In this piece Jenny Robson looks at the response from Early Years Practitioners to the government requirement that they promote Fundamental British Values to young children. She considers whether this is an act of resistance or a reflection of a highly critical stance.
Leaders and practitioners in the early years have paused for thought when faced with the statutory requirement to promote Fundamental British Values in their settings. Blogs and sector events have seen a plethora of questions as early years practitioners search for the meaning of FBV and the implications for their work with children from birth to age five. Sarah, a childminder from Knutsford, in her blog proposes that fellow early years practitioners test their knowledge through the government’s ‘Life in the United Kingdom Test’. She reflects on the risk of British moral superiority subjugating other nations and cultures. Henry, a Dad Blogger, provides insight into FBV as seen through children’s popular television. Perhaps Postman Pat could become core literature to introduce the custom and practice of queuing?
Such views may be interpreted as an act of resistance to government policy but also reflect a highly critical stance.
So why are early years practitioners justified in such an approach?
FBV emerged at some distance from early years settings in the depths of the Prevent Strategy in 2011. FBV are an attempt by government to articulate a set of values within a broad anti-terrorism strategy; defined as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs. Such an approach can been seen as policy imposed from above; leaving the early years sector to exemplify and re-imagine abstract concepts such as ‘the rule of law’ or ‘individual liberty’ for a 2 year old. Early years practitioners are now on a quest through their blogs and sector forums for authoritative sources to navigate the maze of FBV. Professional development courses make promises of ‘How to promote fundamental British Values so funding is not cut’. Sector organisations reassure practitioners through the provision of definitive guidance ‘on what British Values means in the early years to reduce misinterpretation and confusion’.
Engagement with values is not new in the early years. The existing Early Years Foundation Stage Framework (2014) already provides a structure to enable young children to engage with values through the early learning goal ‘Understanding the World’. This sets an expectation that ‘children talk about past and present events in their own lives and the lives of family members… they know about similarities and differences between themselves and others, and among families, communities and traditions’. Such an approach is rooted in lived experiences; it enables children to experience and evaluate the worth of different ideas by applying principles and standards. The Pre School Learning Alliance argues practitioners will struggle to define and teach distinctly British values to young children.
But it is not just about the early years curriculum…..
Now government has harnessed the sector for their anti-terrorism strategy by placing early years settings in scope of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015. Safeguarding children and protecting them from harm is the core work of the early years. However, the promotion of FBV as a specific measure to prevent young children being drawn into terrorism has raised many dilemmas about the role of the early years sector, as an instrument of wider government policy, beyond early education and care. Furthermore Local Authorities can stop funding the free early years entitlement for 2 to 4 year olds where providers promote ‘as evidence based, views and theories which are contrary to established scientific or historical evidence and explanations.’ So this leaves Local Authorities as the arbiter of what constitutes FBV and the judge of the relative merit of different views and theories taught to children in the early years. It could be argued that Local Authorities as democratic bodies are well placed to fulfil this role; however, I question their capacity to connect with minority communities and voices in ways that promote a shared understanding of FBV.
The philosopher Charles Wright Mills, writing in the 1950s, helps us understand the Knutsford blog. He argues that in society people are either the ‘mass’ or the ‘public’. As the ‘mass’ people do not express their opinion they follow instituted opinion, however, the ‘public’ is a product of intellectual and cultural debate which is autonomous of official institutions. I suggest Blogs and Facebook groups are spaces for intellectual debate that shape opinions on FBV in the early years sector in ways that remain independent from instituted authority. Early years practitioners become the ‘public’ offering a critical response to FBV rooted in their work with young children. They counter the formulaic solutions for FBV marketed by training providers who are at risk of becoming the uncritical ‘mass’ following government policy.
Early years’ blogs are sites for the formation and sharing of professional knowledge. Blogs may begin with a plea for help or the articulation of the latest crisis in the face of government policy but grow as spaces for critical reflection concerned with children’s moral development. Perhaps government could adopt a more pragmatic approach by respecting professionals’ knowledge and engage in a debate about the contribution early years’ settings could make to ensure that children, together with their families and communities, are safe in the context of global terrorism. Such a dialogue would potentially produce a set of realisable actions owned by early years practitioners and grounded in the lived experiences of children in their communities.