Teaching 'British Values' in Primary Schools

With thanks to Shona Pye, author of Character Education: The Star Awards Programme for Primary Schools and Project Master Facilitor at VINE, for this fascinating article which explains the importance of developing pupils' strengths, virtues and values.

As part of a recent commission to produce the book Character Education: The Star Awards Programme for Primary Schools, I have been trialling a series of assemblies and lessons in a range of Cornish primary schools. Included in the brief from the publishers at Rising Stars was the need for specific lessons and activities on British values. Through my company VINE I have encountered many teachers whose response to British values is a sigh or pained expression. While many people believe it’s important for our children to be learning about British values, generally speaking people find the complexity of language surrounding these concepts makes them hard for children to understand. The stated British values (democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith) can appear to be very generalised and non-specific terms. How do we deliver these topics in a relatable and practical way, in particular to the younger year groups in Key Stage One and Early Years Foundation Stage?
Initially I didn’t know how to answer this question. However, having delivered many workshops on virtues and character education I could see that linking the topics to different virtues and exploring how these can be applied practically might make them more accessible to the children. I began by asking questions:

  • Which virtues or character qualities represent these British values?

  • How can we be proactive in using these virtues to strengthen the values we want in our society, families, schools and homes?

  • What would our home, school and community look like if we practised British values? What would they look like if we didn’t?

When looking at the list of British values schools are required to cover, I saw that underlying all of these was the virtue of respect. For example:

  • Democracy entails respecting everybody’s right to have a say in how they are governed

  • Individual liberty means we have freedom of speech and the ability to make our own choices, but this only works if we can respect each other’s point of view and understand the consequences of our choices for others

  • The rule of law requires that laws are put in place to protect our wellbeing and respect our basic human rights

  • Mutual respect and tolerance of others with different beliefs is about respecting each other’s right to follow our own path.

Once I’d identified respect as a thread linking the values together, I needed to be able to explore this theme at different levels of complexity with the different year groups. Below, I explain how I did this for each year:
I focused this lesson on practising courtesy and how this shows respect to others. We talked about how saying a simple ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ shows that you value someone. Other examples were holding the door open for someone or offering to help a student who is new to your school.
Year One
In this lesson my aim was for the children to see that we can show respect by following the rules when taking part in sports or games at school. Children usually have a strong sense of what is ‘fair’ so they eagerly engage with questions like “What would it be like to play a game with your friends if no-one followed the rules?” Allowing children to play a game in the lesson with and without rules gave them a deeper and more experiential understanding of the consequences e.g. “I enjoyed the games much more when we all played fair!”
Year Two
I looked at how respect helps us to celebrate our diversity and show tolerance and understanding of other people’s ideas, faiths and beliefs. We discussed how appreciating that other people have their own ideas, thoughts and ways of doing things is showing them respect. We looked at practical examples that highlighted the diversity in their own class. I asked the children, “When we do things together, do we all think the same? How can we show respect when we play or work together?” The feedback from the children was, “It would be boring if we all looked the same and liked the same things.” They are absolutely right – we can learn so much by listening to and respecting each other’s ideas and beliefs.
Year Three
I created this lesson around the rule of law. At first it was hard to see how to help the children connect with this concept. Rather than focusing on crime and punishment, I chose to look at the social rules we have at home, at school and in our community and country. This opened up a discussion with the children about respecting each other and the places we live in, as well as the rules we may have at home and the consequences when those rules are not followed. We then talked about the rules we have to follow in school and in our community, and how there are more formal consequences if we decide to break those rules. Through questions, children had the opportunity to imagine what things would be like if we didn’t have rules, e.g.:

  • How would not having any rules make people feel?

  • What would the school environment be like?

  • What about if we didn’t have rules in our country, what would our society be like?

The children were also able to identify additional virtues that help us to respect the rules at school, such as helpfulness, caring, responsibility, integrity and self-discipline. 
As a practical task, I then asked the children to create their own ‘class promise’ and to identify all the virtues that they feel are important in the classroom. It gave the children a sense of ownership – the rules they follow in class are things they decided for themselves.
Year Four
With this year I looked at individual liberty and focused on the freedom we have to make choices in our society. I asked the children:

  • What things can you choose to do at home?

“I can have a snack l if I am hungry and choose which toys to play with.”

  • What choices can you make at school?

“I can choose which book to read in the library and which school dinner to have.”
I then asked the children to think about the choices we make outside school and how we can make responsible choices. We have freedom to make our own choices but sometimes these choices have consequences and affect other people and our community. For example, if you see a friend drop litter, do you choose to ignore it or make a point by picking it up and putting it in the bin? Do you say something to that friend? What is the responsible choice to make?
Year Five
This time I focused again on celebrating our diversity, linking this with the virtue of tolerance and appreciating that we are all different. For a practical exploration, I designed a game of ‘cultural pursuit’ which helped the children uncover diversity in their class, highlighting different hobbies, ideas and beliefs. For example, children might share “I have had my name mispronounced…” or “I was born in a different country.” I found this to be a fascinating way for the children practically see that we are all unique and special, and to practise showing tolerance and respect to others. They demonstrated this by showing an interest and curiosity towards each other’s answers without being critical or forming prejudgments.
Year Six
With year six I focused on democracy and practising respect, cooperation and patience. The children had the opportunity to discuss lots of topics that they felt passionate about and to share their ideas, using their individual liberty in a respectful way.
In the Star Awards programme for primary schools, each chapter begins with an assembly to introduce the workshops for each year group. This was the highlight of my experience trialling these lessons. For the assembly on democracy, I selected two people to give their opinion on a topic that was relevant to the students and the area they live. This also demonstrated individual liberty as the students had to use their freedom of speech to present their ideas in a respectful way. Ten children were then selected to choose which side to vote for and given some simple rules to follow to demonstrate the rule of law and how the voting process doesn’t work well unless people take part respectfully. The children then practised democracy by casting their vote. Throughout the whole assembly everyone had to show mutual respect by listening to each other’s ideas and valuing the choices they made. Finally, to explore tolerance and respect of people with different faiths and beliefs, I spoke about my family background and my beliefs as an example, and then invited other children to stand up and share where they were born, their family backgrounds and beliefs, if they wanted to. I was thrilled to see so many children’s hands raised, happy to share about themselves. The practical approach of this assembly allowed the children to see British values in action.
Children flourish in schools and in society when they can recognise and value the virtues in themselves and in others. Linking British values (like democracy or individual liberty) to the virtues or character qualities they require us to practise (such as respect) helps children to see how they can apply them in action. The British Values chapter of the Star Awards book gives us an opportunity to reflect on the wonderful diversity that our country has, as well as the opportunity it gives our children to see the respect and tolerance that we are trying to create in our society today.
Maybe there is even more that we could be doing: What do you think is the most important thing for children to learn about in our society? How can we help them to become citizens who contribute to their community?

Pre-order Shona's brand new title Character Education: The Star Awards Programme for Primary Schools for just £34.99 before it officially launches at the end of October here.

Browse our other Wellbeing titles:


British, character, education, PSHE, values, wellbeing and character education

Added to your basket: