A qualitative study of primary school children's perceptions of 'fundamental British values'

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Sociology, Philosophy, Anthropology


Since the 1990s governments have emphasised the importance of a set of British values for the nation to support as a response to the 'failure of multiculturalism'. Schools are considered crucial promoters of these values, and the teaching of 'fundamental British values' (fBv) was introduced into the national curriculum for England and Wales in 2014. The values of 'democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs', must now be 'actively promot[ed]' by educators, who are required to: i) report opposition to fBv; ii) not '[undermine]' fBv in order to gain qualified teacher status; and iii) teach fBv.

It is this last tenet of educators' roles in relation to fBv that is the focus of my research. The teaching of fBv has been criticised on many levels, but the most pertinent criticism for my research is that the use of the adjective 'British' is problematic, as it has different and competing interpretations, and is exclusive, since its inclusion creates a necessary binary of British and 'other'. A stated aim of the policy is to '[unite] us', but this criticism raises key questions about whether the recipients of the policy - children - perceive the teaching of fBv in the intended manner and the impacts of the policy on social cohesion.

While existing literature has so far focused on educators' difficulties in teaching fBv, pupils' perspectives of fBv have been largely unexplored. In fact, the lack of importance attributed to children's perspectives is a recurring problem in research as a whole; and in relation to the fBv programme Janmaat notes that 'the avalanche of criticism contrasts strongly with the paucity of empirical work'. Further, studies considering community social cohesion have tended to be concentrated in urban centres where ethnically-diverse communities are more established. This means that historically 'white British' settings with emerging ethnic minority populations have been neglected in this literature. Therefore it is necessary to shift the focus to how multiculturalism and Britishness are articulated in predominantly white locales.

In response to these neglected areas of research - a) children's' perspectives of fBv, and b) multiculturalism, Britishness and community cohesion in white locales - I will explore children's perspectives of fBv teaching in two primary schools in Exeter and Devon. This region is of particular interest, in that it is a mostly white and rural community experiencing increasing immigration. My research therefore proposes a qualitative study structured to answer the following research questions:
- what do primary school children understand by 'fundamental British values', and who do they consider 'fundamentally British'?
- does the teaching of fBv influence how children identify themselves and those from other ethnic and religious backgrounds?

I will address these questions by conducting qualitative research in two contrasting primary schools, with which I have made contact. One school is based in Exeter and draws from an ethnically diverse and transient pupil catchment. The other school is in a Devon coastal town and has a much smaller proportion of non-white pupils in a relatively stable catchment. The contrast between these two settings will allow for an exploration of the differences in pupils' perspectives of fBv - and the associated concepts of Britishness and multiculturalism - in areas of varying ethnicity, rurality and population transience. I will use an ethnographic approach comprising the observation of pupils throughout the school day as well as running focus groups involving pupils as participants. As a former primary school teacher, I am confident in applying this research method, in using a variety of strategies to engage and communicate with the greatest range of pupils and in meeting the required stringent safeguarding obligations.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2262920 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2019 31/01/2024 Rosie Fox