Tony Parkin: My British values, via Cherry Street and Cherry Blossom

The recent debate on teaching British values and grit set me reflecting on my own school days, and what education had contributed to my own personal British value system. I’m sure many other educators did the same thing, but I wonder how many had considered prior to that reflection that perhaps the picture was not as rosy as it might have been.  What role did my own early education play in forming my concepts of British values, and how should it influence teaching today?

We are big on grit in Yorkshire. Yorkshire Grit is of worldwide renown, and forms the Harrogate anticline and other features of geographical interest in God’s Own County. Grit was developed on the school’s new climbing frame, or embedded in your knees in the school’s old playground. But lest any of you fear the onset of a Yorkshire-focussed rant on such regional values as grit,  ‘speaking your  mind’ and ‘calling a spade an effing shovel’ I should immediately reassure that I am henceforth confining my thoughts to national concepts, rather than the undoubted regional superiority with which I was fortunately gifted.

Cherry StI attended St Clement’s Primary School, York in the early 50s, locally better known as ‘Cherry St’ after the thoroughfare visited daily, rather than the nearby church visited weekly, at most. Nowadays it is no more, what was the Mixed Infants building is a community health centre, and the Juniors was demolished in favour of new terraced houses fetching sums that would astonish Cherry St residents of my day. So I feel at total liberty to divulge the inner workings of Cherry St school when it came to developing British values in its young charges.

I will have to skip over most of the input of the Mixed Infants into the British values domain for a number of reasons. Mainly because my abiding memory of value-acquisition is of wonderful, kind teachers, such as Miss Bousfield, regularly saying ‘No, we don’t do that…’ in a gentle but firm way that never made it clear if we didn’t do that because we were British, because we were human beings, or because wee was a bugger to get out of unvarnished wooden floorboards. Later in life I discovered Miss Bousfield was Miss because she lost her fiance in World War 1, fighting for his country, and so spent the rest of her life raising other people’s children instead of her own. But that didn’t seem to have jaundiced her thinking about being British, and even the second world war we had not long emerged from wasn’t mentioned in the Infants that I can recall. The one undoubtedly British value that I did learn in the Infants was that the British Broadcasting Corporation was a *wonderful thing*. A large radio speaker was regularly wheeled from class to class to allow us to partake of schools broadcasts, of which Music and Movement is sadly the only one I now recall. Which involved leaping around the cleared dining hall to some classical piece, prior to grabbing a coconut mat for the obligatory ‘quiet time’ lying on the same floor, being told to close your eyes and occasionally finding you had had a little nap. But, to be fair, the BBC was always on at home, I had already ‘Listened with Mother’, and Daphne Oxenford was always there to speak to me, as I sat comfortably, so I don’t think Cherry St can claim to have inculcated that particular British value, merely strongly reinforced it.

Across the road at the Juniors, the first British value I acquired was that I now had to go in via the Boys gate, and that any attempt to communicate with girls in the playground was seemingly morally inappropriate. I didn’t quite understand this, as there was mixed seating and teaching in the classrooms, but it was duly if grudgingly accepted. Though it did mean a strain on my lifelong relationship (to that point) with Susan K, born on the same day and my regular playmate to that point. From which it never really recovered, I might add, but that isn’t part of this story.

CanuteThe junior curriculum contained several  ways in which the teaching of British values became core to what Cherry St was all about. Like learning grit and resilience from the first year teacher, Miss Theakston, who quickly demonstrated that striking the back of your legs with a wooden ruler was extremely painful, but left no incriminating marks by the end of the school day. As far as the formal curriculum and British values were concerned, the standout memory in first year Juniors was the introduction of the ’History Reader’. Sadly I’ve forgotten its title, but not its illustrations, or its approach. Each right hand page had a single sided story about something or someone who had helped make Britain great, whilst the left hand page had a picture of them doing it. If I close my eyes, some of those still spring clearly back into my mind. There’s King Alfred being scolded for burning the cakes, and there is Canute looking miserable with his nobles as the tide washes around his ankles. Robert the Bruce sits in his cave watching a spider, whilst two little princes look terrified in the Tower. King John looking surly with the Barons at Runymede, while Boadicea stood in a  chariot urging on her troops. None of the modern day Cnut and Boudicca revisionist stuff, and of course Boadicea was impeccably and decently dressed, rather than the bare-breasted Amazon of today, but every page hammered home a British value along with a historical context. The way this message has stuck with me I think it should probably be considered brain-washing, and declared unacceptable under some Geneva educational convention.

The London County Council had published an influential report on history teaching in its schools in 1911, widely circulated in 1923, which said “The history reader should simply consist of graphically told and picturesquely illustrated biographies and stories drawn from the history of England and of the world.” Cherry Street had clearly bought into that message, and still had the history readers to prove it. The ‘rest of the world’ component, however, seemed to consist of various folk from other realms being defeated or killed by various British ‘heroes’. There was Henry V at Agincourt, and a small band of red-clad troops valiantly machine-gunning Zulu warriors armed only with spears. For balance, perhaps, there was Gordon at Khartoum, but the illustration chosen showed him killing an attacking infidel, presumably  just before he himself met his maker. British values were ALL about grit, courage, winning and being generally superior, it seemed. Though I also recall Florence Nightingale and William Wilberforce were also included, so I may be being unduly jaundiced about how superiority was demonstrated.

A map of the world, showing the British Empire coloured in red at the end of the nineteenth century. Date: late 19th century Source: Advertisement for McVitie's Biscuits and Oatcakes
A map of the world, showing the British Empire coloured in red at the end of the nineteenth century. Date: late 19th century Source: Advertisement for McVitie’s Biscuits and Oatcakes

Lest the history reader failed in its mission to fully inculcate British values, there was always Empire Day to drive home the message. One wall in Class 4 was covered by a massive map of the world, showing just how much of it benefited from imbibing British values by being coloured pink. It did seem mostly pink. Now bearing in mind this was the early 50s, and there had been that little spot of bother with Ghandi on the Indian sub-continent, you might have thought this would have been soft-pedalled somewhat? But you would be wrong; the headteacher was in his 80s, the map was from the 30s, and Empire Day was still celebrated in the time-honoured way that my father remembered from his own sojourn at Cherry St in the early 20s. Once a year all the Juniors marched around the playground carrying the flags of the Empire (and the rather grudgingly mentioned Commonwealth) countries. The Scout trek cart was decorated and one girl selected to be Britannia, given a cardboard trident on a broom handle, and perched aboard to be dragged around the playground by the dominions as if going into battle. Great fun was had by going too quickly as teachers screamed ‘Slow down’ and you tried to topple Britannia from her wooden chair throne. The rest of us actually became country representatives. If you were REALLY unlucky you were picked to be an African nation, such as Kenya or Uganda. Unlucky because this meant that Cherry Blossom black or brown boot polish was liberally applied to your exposed parts, and anyone who has tried to scrub that off in the bath will now be wincing at the memory. But otherwise it was cheerful stuff, we had fun stamping up and down the playground, and at least it was better than lessons. We were pleased and probably proud to be British, and celebrating our values on Empire Day. In my last year, of course,  we got a new headteacher, and before anyone knew what was happening the whole thing was renamed Commonwealth Day, the marching stopped, and the world tilted on its axis.

Developing gritIt’s fair to say, therefore, that British values were a big thing in my day, and now they are to be again it seems. But as the memories and smiles die, my reflection tells me that school contributed in no small way not only to my understanding of British values, but hammered home an underlying racism and feeling of smug superiority over my fellow man that I have spent much of my life trying to shed, with only partial success. So I would just urge a little caution when it comes to celebrating British values in schools, and urge that the values selected are filtered through a human values lens. After all, it’s only a small step from national pride to nationalism, and from there to the mis-named national socialism. True education celebrates humanity, and clarifies borders that should not be crossed, rather than celebrating the all too many borders crossed by the British, all those many years ago.