Demands on schools to promote British values could damage the ability of young people to understand a multi-cultural democracy.

Lawyers are skilled when it comes to spotting abstruse rhetoric… seizing on a potential loophole and closing it off.

So on the day former education secretary Michael Gove demanded that ‘all schools actively promote British values’ (July 9 2014) many a legal eye may have rolled. The phrase is fraught with ambiguities and seems almost designed to bring home the UKIP cheerleaders rather than clarify its own purpose.

But in unpacking what was meant by this new catchall term he and the prime minister both named ‘the rule of law’ as top of the agenda. Can’t be bad…

The idiom emerged in the middle of a crisis among Birmingham schools where the local community was majority Muslim. One effect of localism and school devolution has been to liberate the value-base of local parents and residents into the life of the school. But in these areas some such values were at odds with Western liberal boundaries of tolerance.

During his announcement Mr Gove (pictured) pointed out that in one primary school, ‘pupils have limited knowledge of religious beliefs other than Islam’, which is concerning, yet many of us can bring to mind how pupils heard little else but Christianity in schools for hundreds of years, and that might still be the case in some. Does that make that a British value?

We could talk all day about these complexities. But can I make sure that you know a couple of things? For instance – until 2010 the place of citizenship education in schools was crystal clear. Schools were required by law to teach the rule of law, the British parliamentary system and the role of each individual in building democratic society. To make sure students learn ‘the diverse national, regional, ethnic and religious cultures, groups and communities in the UK and the connections between them’.

Yes, they was in there too. And the obligation to introduce students to social action in their school and community life – exposing them to wider perspectives than their own, and to develop in them the skills of articulating the thoughts and beliefs of those who differ from you. Great stuff for life in a pluralist society capable of peaceful coexistence in prosperous communities. It really is dynamite of the best kind!

I won’t carry on because you can find it all in the former mandatory secondary curriculum and the statutory guidance for primary schools. You may also be glad to know that our organisation, supported consistently and invaluably by the Law Society throughout, had spent 20 years helping to develop and clarify exactly what makes good citizenship education. That was until 2010 when the new secretary of state signalled his doubts that this should take up school time when literacy and numeracy seemed to be struggling…

Now in fairness to Mr Gove, although these mandates were in place, they may not have stopped the so-called ‘Trojan horse’ episode.

But they would have if a well-resourced Ofsted inspectorate with a clear mandate to examine how the principles and practice of citizenship education were being implemented across the school were in place. In fact – it would have killed two birds with one stone. Because students, regardless of their ethnicities, faith or social class would have been given a glimpse into the power and privileges that come to them as the birth right of British citizens.

And the school would have had to guarantee that this is presented in the curriculum and reflected in the life of the school. And governors would have prepared for Ofsted inspections based on their guidance which itself would have signalled that a school could fail the inspection if they hadn’t taken this into account.

But that wasn’t the case. Instead, well, he shut the door after the Trojan horse had bolted…

The intelligent reader would expect Mr Gove to have learnt his lesson and returned to our prescription. Similar to how, in 2011, he did change his mind, to some extent… supported by the Law Society we got together a great coalition who argued the case for citizenship education and we won the day. He turned his back on the recommendations of the Expert Panel and kept citizenship education in the curriculum.

Sure – he rewrote it, with a new programme of studies now three pages long, unlike the previous 40-something. And he took it out of primary schools. And he didn’t mention it in public except when once asked by David Blunkett. And he took it out of the Ofsted inspection regime. And he downgraded the short-course GCSE so that last year only 20,000 took it in comparison to 94,000 in 2010. But at least on paper it’s there.

And now he (or his successor, Nicky Morgan, as it happens) is holding a public consultation on ‘proposed new independent schools standards’ to promote British values.

‘Independent schools?’ (you may query…). Aren’t they the best of British? So just in case you haven’t caught up on this one either… these are now more than half of the country’s secondary schools. State-funded independent schools are our academies and free schools. And in case you didn’t know this either, these are the ones who no longer have to follow the national curriculum. So they don’t have to teach citizenship – they will just have to promote British values.

Dear lawyers – you may have now have spotted a loophole big enough to be a noose for the nation…

Instead of introducing the coming generation to the necessary knowledge of their democracy; instead of introducing critical thinking around public life; instead of helping students prepare for the responsibility of running this country in the face of the most uncertain future we might possibly imagine, we have near-silence. In fact – as far as this subject is concerned – a near silence that is only punctuated by the sound of dropping of tools in many schools.

We need another racket in the silence. The growing roar of disbelief from those like you who know how hard it is to make a complex modern multi-cultural democracy work. Of people getting to their feet and demanding that British values are systematically and intelligently integrated into our children’s education rather than remaining a catchphrase to berate a minority.

Now the system is changed you need to do that in schools that you can influence. Or write to a good lawyer that you know, such as the new secretary of state for education.

Andy Thornton is chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation, which aims to inspire young people to take part in society as equal members, helping them to understand the law, politics and democratic life