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The importance of having core values

Education has to be based on honesty, respect, equality and compassion, says Mike McCabe

In November 2002, the Gordon Cook Foundation provided funding for a group of Scottish educationists to visit Maine in the United States to look at that state's approach to values education and consider its relevance to the Scottish system. The group was led by Dr Bill Gatherer, a former schools inspector and chief educational adviser in the former Lothian Region.

I was fortunate enough to be part of the group and was particularly impressed by Maine's efforts to ensure that young people were provided with a wide range of opportunities to assume constructive roles and develop positive relationships within the life of their school communities. A particularly notable feature was that these efforts were shaped and maintained by a set of core values developed by each individual school.

Having identified their core values, schools worked to ensure that they were reflected in operational practice and in the relationships between members of the school community. Schools were genuinely trying to identify ways of encouraging everyone to recognise that they had a stake in maintaining a positive school ethos. In one high school, we met senior students who supported the school principal in dealing with complaints.

What was unusual about the arrangement was that staff and students could elect to have a complaint dealt with by these students, rather than by the senior managers of the school. The Scottish group was struck by the sophisticated and sensitive way in which the students handled their responsibilities.

State officials were anxious to stress that their approach did not impose a set of values on reluctant schools. They simply facilitated opportunities for each school to identify its core values and then supported the school's efforts to use the values to develop a more positive, inclusive ethos.

Within this context, students were encouraged to see the school as a community of interests where student and staff rights had their counterbalance in individual responsibility. A number of Scottish authorities and schools were represented on the visit and the group returned, committed to taking forward a values-based approach.

In South Ayrshire, we have adopted the approach by helping individual schools and some school clusters to identify a set of shared values which will be used as a reference point when the authority is considering how different initiatives should be incorporated into the school development plan.

Alan Murray, the council's convener of education, culture and lifelong learning, welcomes the initiative but has stressed the importance of wide involvement and consultation in identifying the core values, as well as the need for schools to identify fresh and dynamic ways to ensure that all members of the school community remain focused on living their values.

Scottish schools require to engage with a range of organisations, to draw on a broad range of staff skills and to use volunteers to enrich the educational experience and make provision more relevant to young people. We are finding that the work done on identifying shared values provides a focus which helps schools decide what they are trying to achieve. It also brings the school ethos alive, secures cultural change and assists schools in determining how best to respond to national initiatives.

Another important benefit of a values-based approach is that it encourages students to take on more responsibility and become actively involved in their school community. In South Ayrshire, the approach is setting the foundations for developing active citizenship programmes and several of our primaries are integrating the philosophy with practices based on circle time.

Education staff based within South Ayrshire Council's administrative headquarters have also gone through the values exercise and have identified shared values as: honesty, respect, responsibility, equality and compassion. What was encouraging about this central exercise is that it prompted less senior staff to raise issues about the consistency of our culture and the need to amend practices which were seen as running counter to some aspects of the five values.

We are enthusiastic about a values-based approach, not only because of the benefits in terms of ethos, but also because it helps identify the most relevant response to the five national priorities on education and the various initiatives that are available to schools.

This is an exciting time in education and, in national terms, Scotland has made a good start by identifying priorities, developing associated performance measures and establishing a framework for monitoring, evaluating and reporting on progress.

That said, there are some significant issues. There is a general concern about the number of initiatives, a degree of confusion as to how they interface and a developing perception of fragmentation and tension between different national priority related initiatives. Adopting a values-based approach allows us to step back from the operational detail to identify precisely what it is that we are seeking to achieve in relation to young people.

The approach encourages us to look for the features of health-promoting schools, integrated community schools, eco schools and so on that fit with our values. This condenses a long list of initiatives into a much more concise set of considerations. It addresses the general sense of initiative overload by encouraging holistic thinking and has the potential to transform staff attitudes from mere compliance to a more fundamental and genuine commitment.

Using the individual school's values as a reference point also provides a rationale for further development. It assists staff in maintaining the balance between national priorities such as attainment and inclusion where there is a potential for tension. More generally, the approach provides a focus which helps partner organisations, parents, students and the wider community to develop a common agenda.

I know that other members of the group which visited Maine are also developing values-based approaches in ways which best suit their needs.

Since returning, we have met with Scottish Executive officials and have encouraged them to discuss with ministers the advantages of clearly articulating the values that shaped the national priorities.

We believe that national developments would be more secure, better understood, appropriately paced and therefore more successful if the Executive adopted an explicitly values-based approach which would help everyone understand the underpinning philosophy behind the different initiatives.

Mike McCabe is director of education in South Ayrshire.

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