Don't let value-mongers hijack the classroom

Teachers should not care if their pupils become fast food fanatics or members of the BNP, argues Claire Fox

I am not a moral relativist so it is hard to argue that schools should be value-free zones. However, in today's educational world, I worry that under the auspices of transmitting values, teachers steer perilously close to propagandising "right on" attitudes. This is a warning to be careful not to confuse values with contemporary political orthodoxies - teachers should be indifferent as to whether pupils embrace multiculturalism, gay marriage or gender equality. It is of no matter for educators if teenagers leave school and become volunteering do-gooders; if they abstain from voting or never help a granny cross a road; whether they are lovers of junk food or health food zealots.

Of course, traditionally, schooling implicitly embodies certain values: from discipline to timekeeping; from respect for adult authority to the ideas that hard work rewards and that canonical judgement distinguishes between the excellent and the second-rate. But, historically, this implicit role of moulding the next generation is only valid if educational institutions' core role is the intergenerational transmission of Knowledge with a capital K, and a recognition that it is Knowledge that is transformative rather than a conjured-up checklist of off-the-shelf "values". This way the young can independently mature into critical thinkers who decide which values they will espouse.

Ironically, the problem today is that educators too often have little faith in the potential for academic education and specific subject knowledge to transform children. Such matters as discipline, even that "teacher knows best", are contentious. The "sage on the stage" is lampooned as elitist; the defensive role of "guide on the side" is more in vogue. Self-doubt lurks in every staffroom and policy pronouncement. Does the English or history teacher really have the right kind of knowledge to equip streetwise digital natives for the modern world? More broadly, there is no longer a fully signed-up commitment to a canon of academic subjects that represent a genuine body of knowledge.

In this context, a more pragmatic attitude has developed regarding subject content. It is viewed as provisional and as a consequence can be negotiated, even sidelined. This has created a hollowed-out curriculum. Into this vacuum any number of non-educational values and their champions can hijack syllabuses, at the expense of subjects' core integrity. Various non-governmental organisations, advocacy groups and lobbyists queue up at the school gates demanding that the curriculum is used as a messaging service for everything from environmentalism to Britishness. These secular crusaders seem indifferent to the internal, discrete logic of, for example, science or geography, their only interest to preach the latest sermon.

Meanwhile, every policy debate I attend, whether on drugs, obesity, alcohol, apathy or climate change, concludes with the mantra that "education is the key". Too often this means offloading social and political problems - which should be the responsibility of politicians - on to the shoulders of teachers. What a fool's errand. While MP David Blunkett opportunistically used last summer's urban disturbances to indulge in some special pleading for the continuation of citizenship classes, he forgot to mention that the riots happened after 15 years of citizenship lessons: hardly a ringing endorsement for the classroom resolving social tensions. In 2010, former education secretary Ed Balls' response to the sub-prime housing crisis was that primaries should teach financial management. With no sense of irony he urged that pupils should be taught how "to spend with restraint, borrow within sensible limits and save prudently".

Children as the mouthpiece of the state

The target of values education often seems to be parents. When former education secretary Alan Johnson wrote about changing the electorate's behaviour to tackle energy use, he explained that children had a key role as "influences". He added that reforms to the school curriculum to include "our impact on the planet", making "sustainable development... a stronger focus in the new-style geography syllabus", could result in pupils putting "pressure... on their parents not to buy a gas-guzzling family car".

There is something unsavoury about the state recruiting children as "re-educators" of their naughty, CO2-emitting parents. And we all know it is impossible to have a fried breakfast with a nine-year-old without a lecture on the dangers of fatty foods, and tut-tutting is inevitable if any of us dares light a cigarette or sip a second glass of wine in their presence. Even when parents shout at their own children for misbehaviours in the home, they can expect a lecture full of psychobabble cliches about the importance of encouragement, not reprimand. It is not values we are imbuing in our pupils. Rather, we are in danger of creating a generation of sanctimonious, po-faced, hectoring prigs.

Ultimately, teachers need to be more modest about their role. Their expertise is not in churning out state-approved model citizens with the "correct" values. Teachers' expertise lies in their professional knowledge. It is only through the acquisition of this academic canon that children can transcend their limited experience to make their own way in the world. And that means they have a chance of developing the intellectual independence and moral autonomy that will allow them to decide which values matter to them when they grow up.

Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas. This is an edited version of a speech given at the London Festival of Education on 17 November.

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