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On a moral hiding to nothing

How could a debate about public morality, raised in the most profound imaginable way by Frances Lawrence, culminate in the absurd notion that the reintroduction of corporal punishment will solve all our problems?

Thank God the Secretary of State has a mobile phone.

We have, of course, been somewhere near here before. In researching my new book, The Learning Game, I came across the Guardian editorial from the day after the trial of James Bulger's killers. The murder had triggered a national debate, it said, on "isolation, alienation and indifference in modern Britain". Isn't that what we were supposed to be debating last week and the week before?

And what happened after the Guardian's editorial? The British cycle of response to crisis played itself out with sickening predictability. A serious moral debate became absurd.

The following day, David Maclean, a Home Office minister, taunted the church: its failure to teach right and wrong had created the climate in which James Bulger could be killed. Then John Patten said schools were value-free zones. And John Major launched his disastrous "Back to basics" campaign.

As then, so now. Once panic begins, we seem to dredge up the most dreadful remnants of Victorian society and try to breath some foul-smelling life into them. History, Marx said, repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, then as farce. Exactly. Does anyone really believe that corporal punishment could play a part in helping us create a more civilised society?

But there is another step in our cycle of crisis. After absurdity comes oblivion. Moral panic, it seems, is followed in this country, as night follows day, by moral indifference. Rather than solve the problems that face us, we prefer to avoid them.

I quote in my book a conversation I overheard in an Islington cafe: "I shop at Tesco's now", said the woman, "you don't get children there, only normal people". I sometimes despair.

I was introduced recently to a wonderful Danish headteacher, a man with a profound understanding of and pride in the history of his country and of Europe. His school is a successful, orderly, humane institution which treats young people with the respect they deserve. As a school leader of international repute, he was asked some 15 years ago to undertake a consultancy in this country but, he said, he had nothing to contribute in a country where discipline depended on beating children.

Why on earth do we think beating children would work even if it was morally acceptable? It never worked in the past. Our schools have improved more in the decade since it was abolished than in the preceding 20 years. They are also - though this rarely makes the headlines - more civilised places than they were before.

Two celebrated cases whipped up by a populist union leadership and a media more interested in sensation than sense hardly amounts to a case for undermining a decade of achievement in schools. There are no grounds for complacency but nor are there grounds for turning back the clock.

And why do we think that all we need to do is teach children right from wrong?

No one should be fooled into believing that that is all we need to do. Knowing the difference between right and wrong, for example, is only the beginning. The boys who killed James Bulger surely knew that what they were doing was wrong. They still chose to do it. The central issue for all children, for all of us, is whether when presented with a choice we choose to do what we know is right. Publishing statements, however good, cannot possibly influence this core of the moral debate. But what can?

H L Mencken, the American wit, once said that for every problem there is a simple straightforward solution which is wrong. His aphorism certainly applies here. Changing the moral climate in which we live cannot be achieved by any pre-election wheeze. It requires instead policies which, applied consistently over time, improve the relationships between people which are at the core of social morality. Narrowing the yawning gap in this country between rich and poor would help, but the policies behind the headlines matter too.

Take behaviour in schools as an example. First, it must surely make sense to introduce measures which clarify the respective responsibilities of parents and teachers in relation to pupil behaviour and learning. After a decade of extending parents' rights - sensibly in my view - it has become necessary to clarify their responsibilities too. Home-school agreements, as advocated by both the National Association of Head Teachers and the Labour party, clearly make sense in this context.

In The Learning Game, I propose going beyond broad agreements and suggest that the parents and teachers of each child should set individual targets and review progress towards them every six months. The agreements should set out the responsibilities of both school and parents in meeting them. Some schools are already doing this with marked success.

Secondly, while delegating responsibility from local education authorities to schools has been largely successful, that delegation should be conditional. The flaws in the system become starkly apparent when the staff and the governors fall out as at Manton. For Matthew Wilson, the 10-year-old at the centre of the crisis there, the problem is that the buck does not stop anywhere. It revolves endlessly. The LEA should have the power to intervene more vigorously when such an impasse occurs. At the moment the school has power without responsibility and the LEA responsibility without power. Matthew Wilson is as entitled to an education as everyone else and if we are serious about a more stable moral society in the future, it is essential he gets it.

The Learning Game by Michael Barber is published by Gollancz this week.

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