If schools don't promote moral values, who will?

Assembly is no one's favourite part of the school day. But, in a world of intolerance, it's up to schools to spread vital moral messages, says Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

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The end of the school year approaches, and with it a break from all that marking and planning. There’s also a pause in preparation for those teachers and school leaders who take assemblies – for a class, a year cohort, the whole school.

I regularly took assemblies for 28 years as a head (and for a few before that). I took care over my little homilies, the best-crafted short and pithy, the less successful compared by senior colleagues to the game Mornington Crescent on the long-running BBC Radio 4 comedy, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue: “We wondered if you’d find your way back from that red herring,” they’d comment. My daughters, who generally coped heroically with having me as their head, banned me from “trying to be amusing in assembly, Dad. It’s embarrassing”.

Looking back, my talks were somewhat predictable. I tried to leaven them with anecdotes, references to current events, anniversaries, those days or weeks themed to particular causes or commemorations. Undoubtedly, a thread ran through them about the need for kindness, patience, altruism, resilience, compassion, the valuing of difference and individuality. I blundered through those themes as well as a privileged middle-class white male of a certain age could hope to, and long before David Cameron labelled them “British values”.

No one's favourite

When asked about their favourite aspect of school, not one student (or teacher) ever cites assembly. Nonetheless, when challenged I used to respond that, if the head didn’t promote the institution’s values to staff and students alike, it was unlikely that anyone else would. 

A number of things brought assemblies to mind this week. It wasn’t just Donald Trump’s undeniably racist suggestion that four Democrat congresswomen “go back [to the] places from which they came” (three are US-born). Even more concerning is that, the more extreme and hate-filled his statements become, the more his ardent supporters love him. One such champion (ruining an otherwise pleasant Italian restaurant meal) assured me that Trump “tells it how it is”. (Unbidden, he then recounted how his wife runs Bible classes while he campaigns for the retention of the death penalty. We ate up and left.) 

Oops! Did I mention religion, that other topic anathema to polite dinner parties? Monday’s BBC Panorama documentary dived into the complex and vexed question of the inclusion of LGBT issues in sex and relationships education (SRE or, increasingly, RSE). Following parental objections to the No Outsiders programme taught in Birmingham’s Parkfield Primary School, similar protests are now affecting more than 70 schools nationwide, according to NAHT national secretary, Rob Kelsall. 

Bogus honesty

These aren’t mere squabbles: the Commission for Countering Extremism’s Sara Khan characterised them as “mobs intimidating” teachers and schools. Watching Panorama I was perhaps most disturbed by assertions from a range of traditionalist religious groups that schools dealing sensitively with the undeniable fact that gay relationships and same-sex marriage and parenting are both legal and increasingly common are seeking to “teach their children to be gay”. The same intolerant argument, Trumpian in its falsehood, led to the shameful decision by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988 to introduce the infamous Clause 28, not repealed until 2003.

Bogus “honesty”, masquerading as the freedom or courage to speak hard truths, spreads suspicion and hatred, and not just in America. Populists and nationalists around the world adopt the same tactic. Here, Boris Johnson does it (remember his burqa comments?). Nigel Farage demonises fictitious “political elites” at home and in Brussels; Ann Widdecombe sets out to cause offence in Brussels; Islamophobia and antisemitism are permitted to flourish in the two major parties. And social media spreads viral fake news and messages of hate in an instant.

Hearing truth

Notwithstanding the pressures from outside, school is still a place where children hear truth, as they surely must. Happily, teachers’ inbuilt moral compass still compels them to promote and defend honesty. In spite of the strenuous efforts of pressure groups and devious demagogues, I believe it will continue, if teachers will hold their nerve. 

So, assembly takers, enjoy your break. But, on return in September, don’t give up on those vital moral messages of honesty, fairness, and the welcoming (not mere tolerance) of difference. If schools don’t promote those qualities, right now I don’t know who else will.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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