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Lost in wonder

Primary schools, by their very nature, are concerned with pupils' spiritual and moral development. A prescriptive approach has merely led to confusion, says Reva Klein.

Here is a simple equation offered by Ron Best, professor of education at Roehampton Institute: morality is about being good, about knowing right from wrong. The church teaches people how to be good and to know the difference between right and wrong. The church is about the spiritual. Therefore spirituality and morality are about the same things. Right?

Wrong. Or perhaps maybe. It all depends on who you talk to. Ron Best uses this bit of sophistry to illustrate the confusion and over-simplistic thinking that surrounds what is arguably the muddiest and most despised part of the curriculum: spiritual and moral development. Spirituality and morality took a nosedive in 1992. It was in that year that the Education Act introduced the formal assessment of the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC) of pupils by means of the four-yearly inspections. The response to this requirement was less than enthusiastic, particularly about the spiritual and moral. Teachers were furious at the imposition of such ethereal ideals lobbed together with an already over-stuffed curriculum, astounded at the suggestion that such developmental issues could be taught, and panic stricken at the prospect of being inspected in areas in which they felt distinctly wobbly. But most significantly, they were confused. What did those words mean - spiritual and moral? Wasn't spirituality about believing in God? What if you don't believe in God? And anyway, weren't these things being dealt with already in RE?

According to Ron Best, teachers aren't feeling much happier now than they were then. "The Department for Education hasn't made the meaning of spirituality any clearer and the Office for Standards in Education is finding it difficult to find a clear definition of what it's looking for. A lot of the discussion is crowded by the mixing up of what's done in assemblies and collective worship and personal and social education. People are tussling with the issues, asking if morality and spirituality are the same or different."

What seems to be true, even with all the confusion, is that primary schools are addressing children's spiritual, moral, social and cultural development day in, day out - and have been doing so for decades without being burdened with such an unwieldy, befuddling title. It is in the nature of primary teaching that teachers can make constructive interventions that help to develop attitudes, values and personal qualities in their pupils. How a teacher handles fights between children, or the tone taken with a child who is upset at being chosen last for a game, or the way in which an unruly class is brought under control, all reflect a value system of the teacher that is transmitted, overtly or otherwise, to the children.

But what these interventions are called and how they relate to SMSC - well, that's another story. According to a member of a teachers' organisation who prefers not to be named: "What words mean now is up for grabs. In the legislation and in OFSTED's 1994 SMSC discussion paper, the language is extraordinarily loose and there is no one to help interpret it because there are no inspectors with whom schools have continuing, face-to-face relationships. The room for misunderstanding is great."

Hertfordshire is one of the few local authorities to have issued its own guidance to schools on spiritual and moral development. Its document offers clear definitions and ways of applying spiritual and moral development to all curricular areas, as well as suggestions for an action plan for heads and governors. Says Stephen Lavender, religious education adviser: "It's disappointing that it's always left up to the RE advisers to take the initiative on spiritual and moral development. I think it is a whole school issue. Our document helps schools identify what they are and aren't doing. We've tried to make our guidance more practical than the OFSTED discussion paper but it's still an esoteric issue."

Others are interpreting the requirements in ways that make sense to them. Teacher Bill Tindall is a self-styled philosopher whose year 6 class at Katherine Semar junior school in Saffron Walden, Essex, gets regular doses of Socrates and Plato alongside their Michael Rosen and Jan Mark. For him, spiritual and moral development are part of everything he does. "At the root of everything, I want to produce thinking, reflective, self-motivated people confident of debating questions. I'm interested in people taking responsibility for themselves."

Tindall is an advocate of using questionnaires as a way of raising awareness and discussions of feelings and issues that are of tremendous importance to children. Such questions as "how do I know I can trust my friends?" and "what would you be prepared to do with a friend?" are answered in confidence and then discussed in the class. Sometimes the moral dilemmas that Tindall poses are clear-cut and other times not. After reading a Victorian moral tale about a little girl who insists on her mother buying her a pretty vase rather than the shoes she desperately needs, a debate raged about greed (the child's) and responsibility (the mother's sense or lack of it in allowing her child to make a frivolous choice). Some pupils were surprisingly punitive towards the little girl, saying that she deserved to hobble around in disintegrating shoes for being so acquisitive. They, as hard-boiled consumers, expected from the girl a more mature response to the I-want-it-and-I-want-it-now impulse. The mother, most agreed, was blameless - which generated yet more discussion about adult responsibility and how much children should be guided.

For Bill Tindall, the distinctions between spirituality and morality are not problematic. "Spirituality is about feeling good about yourself and other people. It's about being aware of what is beautiful in the physical and inner worlds. People who are spiritually well-developed are happy with themselves. They don't have to rubbish others to make themselves feel good. Spirituality is morality in action. Morality is about right and wrong. It's not about following rules but about what the individual knows to be right and wrong."

Based on fundamental ethical principles, morality is not about compliance and obedience. If it were, there would be no such thing as war crimes. Perhaps, as Laurie Rosenberg, education officer for the British Board of Jewish Deputies, suggests, we need to address the dichotomy between spiritual and moral development and the rest of the curriculum. "The Conservatives' education reforms have hit at the very core of spirituality. When the Government decries child-centredness on the one hand - which has spirituality at its core - and says teach spiritual and moral development on the other, what you get is a dissonance. Maybe the same sea change needs to occur in schools as that of the late 80s, when the focus was on making the whole school special to accommodate all children. Spiritual and moral development needs to be a whole school issue."

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