Much is being written about how we should develop the spiritual and moral education of children and how our lack of attention to this has left us in a parlous state. Much of what we read castigates teachers and children. It seems that as long as you are in authority, you have the credentials to make definitive statements. But where is the research to substantiate the claims of moral decline and who should be consulted in determining a programme of development? Indeed, what is spiritual and moral education about?
We started with the introduction of a spiritual, moral, social and cultural dimension as permeation issues across the curriculum, but this lacked definition. There were no trained inspectors with credentials in these areas because there was no history of addressing them, and the emphasis on the national curriculum prevented them being adequately developed.
Then a new situation arose: Dunblane, the death of Philip Lawrence, the initiatives of the School Curriculum Assessment Authority on education for citizenship and family values, and the recognition that, with a forthcoming general election, the questions of moral and social order must be seen to be addressed.
Morality became a significant issue, but all the talk is about the generalities of traditional Christian virtues and family values. It is easy to apportion blame when you can identify victims and sense that the public want something done.
But where is the evidence for this? We may find ourselves in the same situation as we have created regarding crime and punishment: wield a big stick, as Gillian Shephard might say, and order will follow. But what about the children? It seems no one needs to consult them. We don't need psychologists to tell us what is wrong. Discipline will put things right.
Here is another story, as told by children we have interviewed on the Children and Worldviews Project, which set out to investigate the sense children made of significant experiences in their lives and the impact they had on their development.
A main theme of their responses concerned conflict, loss and bereavement. Central among these were parental separation and the death of grandparents and relatives. In some cases, these experiences were unresolved, and the children were dealing with the situations in isolation.
The following comments by two 10-year-old boys whose parents had split up are indicative of the issues to be confronted and the intelligence, resilience and spiritual and moral qualities of the children. In interview, the boys explained the problem they wished to talk about.
A said: "It's hard for me . . . my mum split up with my dad and I don't know what its like to have a mum 'cos I wasn't old enough to know when they split up . . . I'd just like to see her more often 'cos all I hear of her are like phone calls or I go and see her about once every year."
B said: "My mum and dad split up 'cos my dad had other girlfriends and he was hitting my mum and my sisters . . . I was about seven and they split up and a couple of years ago I went to a social worker 'cos I was in distress and my mum's remarried and they've had another baby . . . he's my brother. My dad isn't married yet but he's got a girlfriend and she's got two kids, there's one, a boy about my age, so I get on well with him, but um, when they first split up I thought . . . I felt alone 'cos there was no one person, um, man in my life who I could mess around with and things."
The boys then spoke of the effect of the situation now.
B said: "It builds up during the week and Saturdays and Sundays you just go for it."
A: "Yeh, 'cos it sometimes gets distressing during the week, like some people saying, 'Oh, I'm going on holiday with my mum' and that and I've never been on holiday and I don't live with my mum and I don't ever go on holiday with my mum and they all know what its like but . . ."
Questioner: "Do you feel angry with anyone?
A: "I feel really angry with my dad."
B: "That's what I was like at first, I was really angry with my dad, but I can't forgive him for that but if we did start over again, just me and him, it will be okay."
Questioner: "It will be okay?" B: "Yeh, if we start again."
Questioner: "So, you can't forgive him but . . . " B: "We can start again. "
Questioner: "You can start again, have you told him that?
B: "No, it's hard."
Questioner: "When you come to school does it affect how you behave at school at all or how you feel?
B: "A lot. I just . . . things I never used to do, like messing around, and like I didn't used to talk a lot, its just things like that, it isn't like crying and stuff like that. I talk a lot 'cos I want to talk about something . . . I want to talk about it, but I don't talk about it to my friends."
Questioner: "When it affects you in school, would it help to talk to somebody?" A: "Yeh, who's like in school for about every other week, and if you have problems you can come up and speak to them."
B: "If there's someone in your class who's in the same situation, like me and A, it's good to talk to each other and comfort each other."
This interview has been quoted at some length to show the development of the conversation, in which the boys identify the problem, explain how they are dealing with it, recognise the effect it has on their relationships and behaviour, and propose a way forward.
The conversation is less than 10 per cent of the transcript, taken over one and a half hours. Of 60 children in the year group, 47 wanted to be interviewed. The children were responding to a child's story, from another school, about her relationship with her dead grandmother. The project has interviewed more than 150 children, many of whom show the same need to be listened to and respected.
What are the conclusions to be derived from this research? The first concerns the way we go about spiritual and moral development. Perhaps we need a new approach. We need to talk to children and take notice of what they say.
The second concerns the complexity of the issues we confront. We do not have problems in schooling, but in educational and social provision. Experiences that result in unacceptable behaviour are derived from failing relationships. Relationships fail because problems are not addressed. Blaming those involved and disciplining them will not solve anything. It will add to their sense of guilt.
Parents, teachers and children must be helped to construct a supportive system which recognises that responsibility lies with us all, rather than identifying social miscreants and a corpus of failing children, teachers and parents.
The most damaging factor we have identified is a lack of communication over issues that we feel unable or unwilling to address. If Government and educational authorities wish to place spiritual and moral education at the centre of their reforms they must be aware of two things: the importance of diagnostic research and the extent of provision required. Anything less will be a cheap and inadequate fix.
Clive Erricker is head of the School of Religion and Theology at Chichester Institute of Higher Education and director of the Children and Worldviews Project. The project's research is due for publication in The Education of the Whole Child, Issues in Education series, Cassell, in January