Look to your morals, Mr Blair

Christopher Price

Religious education is not the way to redress the ethical balance in schools, says Christopher Price, but neither are the Labour party's policies.

Though Labour leader Tony Blair used his recent conference speech to declare his passion for education, that passion emerged as secular and utilitarian. Both parties' curricular policies are now alike. All the old lofty political ambitions of using the curriculum to elevate the spirit and cement the social fabric seem to have vanished. Government (whether central or local) has been reduced to the role of regulator of a diverse market.

As a result both the Tories and Labour are in danger of ignoring one of the most potent wishes of parents for children - moral education. To the extent that morality is touched upon, it is focused on the religious niceties and monopolies of the 1944 settlement. Statutory and compulsory religious education for all, once the cornerstone of the curriculum (and earnestly lobbied for by the religious Right in the USA), is firmly marginalised outside a secular national curriculum.

Acts of worship are more than ever now calculated to entrench Christianity, the established religion. Voluntary-aided status, worked out with care in 1944 to preserve the buildings of Church of England schools and the offspring of the Catholics within the state system, is to be firmly ring-fenced on a bipartisan basis, with no mention of accepting Islam and other religions into the fold. To the extent that it touches on morality and religion, England's education policy is now informed by conservatism in its deepest sense - a terror of opening up cans of worms and unleashing unknown forces.

Religious traditions, however, have no ethical monopoly in schools. The quality and culture of education in French schools lies in their secular certainties - a 200-year-old belief in the State as a beneficent entity. There was once a similar communitarian educational faith in many English "county" schools, especially in education authorities like the London County Council or the West Riding where teachers took pride in working for what they often called "the service".

Indeed, throughout a century of arguments between church and state about the "dual" system of secular and religious schools in England, the rhetoric assumed the centrality of moral and spiritual education in both traditions. Now, with the churches and the great education authorities sidelined, such arguments are no longer deployed; when the grant-maintained system was set up, the schools were given no hint that they should have any particular ethic beyond individuality, the market and competition - the secular religion of the 1980s.

The 1988 Act, however, went through the motions of restating the older, traditional ethic that has appeared in all education Acts this century - that education is about religious, moral and spiritual as well as mental and physical development, a theme with which parents now seem increasingly to be agreeing. The communitarian debate about nursery education and the nuclear family is at least agreed on this issue - that the moral education of the young has been neglected and should now be a priority. In the event, the effect of the 1988 Act was grossly unbalanced; it led to too much testing and too little space for values. Is there anything concrete which a Labour government could do to correct this balance?

More religion does not seem to be a sensible way forward. A century of religious education (which graduated from divinity through religious knowledge) provides little evidence that this compulsory subject has made any difference to the nation's moral sensibilities. Nor is it clear whether the current multi-faith frenetic activity will work any better. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has (heroically) produced agreed model syllabuses and a revised glossary of all approved religions from Buddhism to Sikhism and of technical terms from Abhidhamma to Vand chhakna.

The Royal Society of Arts has continued the debate with a pamphlet Future Progress in Religious Education in which John Gay of Culham College, after noting that Gallup discovered two years ago that 76 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds had never heard of the Ascension, took a gloomy view of RE's effect on pupils' religious attitudes. The clerics and their acolyte teachers will spend most of their time explaining their religions within the sliver of school time allotted to them. Asking them to go further and use religion to stem the current moral erosion seems optimistic.

Yet an aspiration for a new emphasis on moral education has both parental backing and legal imperatives. Under the 1988 Act the national curriculum has to "promote the ... moral ... development of the pupils at the school and of society"; and according to the 1992 Act the Office for Standards in Education is supposed to keep Secretary of State Gillian Shephard informed of "the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils". This is not a feasible task. OFSTED is a narrowly-conceived quality operation. Any initiative to promote moral education should not involve new curriculum Orders from above; it should rather aim to persuade teachers and governors that a school's values should be held in quite as much esteem as its league-table placing.

Moral education is primarily delivered by good teaching: of English and drama, science and especially art and art criticism and a school atmosphere which succeeds in trickling beyond the minds of pupils to their imagination and emotions. It is about playing with ideas rather than learning them off by heart. It is only possible when there is leadership from senior staff who are less interested in outward forms than internal culture; where the school is at one in its aims with its parents and governors and community; and where there is space in the day to review progress. It cannot be ghettoised like religious education. In a perfect world, it would emerge naturally from every lesson and activity in the school.

Currently, for fear of being branded soft, Labour is in danger of being sucked into the educational agenda of the 1980s and 1990s which relied on top-down intervention and disempowered initiative from individual schools. David Blunkett could do worse, when Sir Ron Dearing retires, than ask Lord Nolan to head SCAA. His seven commandments, from selflessness to leadership, could form an excellent foundation for a new ethical development of the curriculum.

Christopher Price is former chair of the House of Commons select committee on education

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