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Leadership - How to be a guiding light

Children's moral and social development is vital for their later success - so foster it

Children's moral and social development is vital for their later success - so foster it

Teaching is no longer just about academic lessons. Schools in the UK and elsewhere in the world are increasingly also being charged with the duty of overseeing students' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. This means producing adults who are not only law-abiding but also reflective and willing to support their fellow human beings, and who are mindful of the different faiths and beliefs that make up society.

But how, as a school leader, do you make this happen? The first factor is support. For students, spiritual development should include the opportunity to question and challenge attitudes and beliefs, and perhaps to begin a journey down a different path from that officially sanctioned by their school, church or community. Leaders have to facilitate that choice and ensure that all members of the school support each young person on his or her journey.

Staff must also be given opportunities to reflect on that particular journey, so that lessons can be learned for the future.

Social conditioning

In addition, the leader has to put in place the conditions and environment for moral development. This is done by facilitating and starting discussions in classes, meetings and assemblies. Subjects for debate should include standards of behaviour and different value systems; the recognition that there are multiple perspectives and multiple truths; and the acknowledgement that people are likely to disagree when their own deeply held beliefs are challenged.

Schools need to ensure that discussions are contextualised and students understand that disagreeing with others and their beliefs, choices or identities is not the same as discrimination. Leaders and teachers should set an example by being tolerant and understanding, at the same time as being open to broad discussions that students feel genuinely free to speak up in.

Build on moral and spiritual development by focusing on social development. This means creating an awareness within students that differences should not become barriers to collaboration, and that it is crucial to see people as individuals in a multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-faith, multi-identity society. Schools cannot make students think in a certain way, but they can demonstrate the right way to act and give students experience of working with others who are different from themselves by, for instance, engaging with the wider community.

Finally, there is cultural development. This is about more than acknowledging the presence of other ethnic groups in our communities. Students should be offered an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which their worlds are constructed. The challenge lies in providing learning opportunities that explore how and why attitudes change, why some remain unaltered, why some people find aspects of equality and inclusion challenging, and what sorts of opportunities lie ahead. Ensure that teachers have the classroom time to deal with these issues properly.

No one is claiming that all this is an easy task. Compared with standard academic matters, these concepts are abstract, with no real way of assessing success or formulating quantifiable objectives. And yet these are the areas where you can arguably have the most impact on how a child will function in society when they leave school. And that could have a more significant bearing on students' success than any academic qualifications they might achieve.

Ian Rivers is professor of human development and head of the school of sport and education at Brunel University in London. He is also visiting professor at Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Strathclyde


Schools are responsible for the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of students.

Leaders have to recognise this obligation and give staff the training, time and direction to properly enable students to develop in these four areas.

This is about reaching out into the wider community as well.

Success in this area can have a bigger impact on students than academic achievements.

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