Delivering the duty on ‘British values’


The government’s focus on ‘British values’ means that spiritual, moral, social and cultural education is firmly back on the map. Phil Parker warns against this being a tick-box exercise.


In November, SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural education) was given a major injection of status, placing it on the list of “issues to be addressed” for many senior leadership meetings no doubt.

This change was driven by the Department for Education (DfE) publishing its guidance document on “British values” in response to the Birmingham Trojan Horse inquiry. 

Ofsted has been instructed to inspect SMSC provision within a context where “good” or “outstanding” cannot be achieved unless “British values” are clearly demonstrated.

In the Ofsted inspection handbook, the grade descriptor for outstanding overall effectiveness says: “The school’s thoughtful and wide-ranging promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development enables them to thrive in a supportive, highly cohesive learning community.”

This means SMSC provision needs such values to be explicit. Education secretary Nicky Morgan’s crusade to address homophobic abuse fits into this category too. Indeed, there are lots of ways the necessary messages can be consistently communicated through explicit SMSC provision.

During my lengthy tenure as a senior leader I always got the SMSC brief when Ofsted came to call. With help from middle leaders I used a grid which acted like a map, directing inspectors to where SMSC could be found within the curriculum. It was a cursory and rather tenuous document, but it worked. 

However, such approaches are useless now. The ultimate test of SMSC isn’t where it is “delivered” (I hate that term!), but on the impact it has on learners. 

My grid showing how history delivered morality in their Holocaust scheme of work directed inspectors to the tip of an iceberg. What I should have been doing was asking: to what extent are students aware of the moral issues that they are encountering? Ideally we could have gone one stage further: ask to what extent are students exploring these moral issues? 

If exploration is the method, it suggests students are free to find their own answers. According to the Citizenship Foundation, exposure to British values should not just be about teaching the appropriate knowledge regarding (for instance) democracy. It is about “helping people to understand how things work and how to challenge and change them”. I entirely agree.

But if we are encouraging students to explore SMSC issues, how do we facilitate that process? Exploration needs to be empowering. It must encourage students to focus on finding their own interpretation of these values, not having them handed down by the teacher, who is in turn delivering a government edict. Yet, if we are not careful, in order to address that Ofsted requirement, we will revert back to grids and box-ticking. So if that’s the problem, what’s my solution?

We need a language to empower the interpretation of SMSC. Therefore: 

  • It needs to be coherent, easily recognised and understood across the whole school.

  • It has to be embedded within all subject areas (not just apparent in a scheme of work, but communicated so students know it is there).

  • It must feature in tutorial time and assemblies – in the same way as it is communicated across the curriculum.

  • It must have a common language that can deal with abstract concepts, using a vocabulary that is regularly spoken in the school so it becomes familiar.

  • Students must use that vocabulary to express their views regardless of subject barriers.

Let me assure you that this can work. I have worked with a number of schools to develop such a curriculum model. The idea was initiated in an outstanding faith-based school where HMI issued this challenge.

The resources we created are used primarily in tutorials (they are roughly 20 minutes long), but are written in ways which make for great learning activities across different subjects (as starters for instance). They are coherent because they retain the common language I mentioned and the vocabulary (we call them “elements”) looks like this:

  • Spirituality uses elements such as “empathy” and “faith” in the resources.

  • Morality elements address concepts such as “justice” and “integrity”.

  • Society resources focus on “community” and “harmony” elements.

  • Culture materials focus on “diversity” and “heritage” elements.

This shared format generates a “whole-school” ethos that is understood by students, thereby empowering them. If you still need grids then map where the SMSC “elements” appear in schemes of work. The crucial factor is these abstract concepts are made explicit to the learners.

This approach builds the kind of “highly cohesive community” that Ofsted is looking for, because SMSC is seen from the students’ perspective, plus it encourages the challenge and change factors inherent within good citizenship and “delivers” British values. 

So let’s go “off the grid” and encourage our students to use a useful vocabulary to make sense of the world in which they live. For that to happen, SMSC needs to be understood and resourced in ways that highlight its impact on young people’s development, not reduced to a grid. 

  • Phil Parker, an ex-senior leader, is now a director of Student Coaching Ltd which works with schools eager to develop rounded young people by transforming the way teachers and students learn. Visit or tweet him @PhilPfromSC

Further information
Promoting Fundamental British Values as Part of SMSC in Schools, DfE advice, November 2014:
Photo: iStock



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