A few years ago I visited a secondary school in a very tough area. Violence, crime, dilapidated housing and poverty were taken for granted. As I looked in vain for the main door, two boys were digging in the patch of soil that represented a garden.
"Excuse me," I began, "can you tell me where I can find the head?" Signalling to his mate to carry on digging, one of the lads took me up four flights of stairs and showed me into his office. I told the head how impressed I was at the helpful boy's politeness. Out came his diary. "I'll say something about that in assembly tomorrow." I was very impressed.
I was reminded of this incident when I read Frances Farrer's engaging report on the values programme at West Kidlington primary school, north of Oxford. She, too, reports the comments from visitors on how well they are received. The school has consciously placed a set of 22 values, including honesty, tolerance, trust, respect, responsibility, co-operation and friendship, right at the centre of its daily life.
What is impressive about this neither privileged nor over-endowed primary school is how many different individuals and groups have become involved in how it is run: pupils, teachers, ancillary staff, parents, policeofficers.
The move towards this particular ethos began with the arrival of a new head, Neil Hawkes, formerly a local authority senior adviser (who said they were all clueless?). He enthused staff and pupils to adopt a list of values which, it was believed, should be central to life at the school, rather than the subject of an occasional lesson or the odd harangue in assembly.
Consequently the whole school systematically works at understanding the entire set of 22, at the rate of one per month (except August) over a two-year cycle. When "happiness" is on the agenda, for example, all classes discuss what makes them happy and how they can bring joy to others. For Year 2 children it is hugging their mum, eating and Christmas; by Year 5 it is friends, holidays, birthdays and events fromstories.
It is essential that parents reinforce what the school is doing. Most are enthusiastic, pleased at how confident their children are, or how much they contribute to assembly. A few worry about whether they will be tough enough in the outside world. There are often fights between children on the streets in the surrounding area, so understandably parents are concerned that their peace-loving offspring may get a smack in the mouth instead of the civilised response they receive during circle time.
In many ways what the school does is similar to what happens in any other thoughtful and caring school community. What is different is the degree to which the values programme penetrates the whole-school programme:
"awareness of physical self as wonderful" in science, "developing moral responsibility to care for environment" in geography, "shopping in a multicultural area and studying the maths of other cultures, like Rangoli patterns" in maths.
My only reservation is that it might be overdone. Reading an account by an enthusiast is not the same as seeing for oneself from the inside, so I do not want to be too sceptical. In any case, that would be like criticising the late Mother Teresa, though I could craftily invoke the "tolerance" value. But I have always been sceptical of the value of too much circle time introspection, for example, which can become self-indulgent.
That said, there is a great deal to learn from this inspired school. With all the detailed prescriptions in education and the fear of retribution from inspectors, it is a pleasure to see a school having a go, and doing well academically as a result. There is a real danger that innovation will die under the weight of central directives.
Let us hope that the Government does not decide to have a "values hour": 10 minutes of "happiness", 15 minutes of "respect" (in not more than two ability groups), five minutes of "honesty".
I couldn't stand it. Give me the West Kidlington version any day.
Ted Wragg Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter