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Morality moves centre stage in political power play

As politicians thrill to the imminent drama of a general election, perhaps the rest of us should simply keep our heads down. While manifestos enter stages right and left-ish, we hope our more mundane efforts to keep the house lights on and the audience fed and watered are sustainable both before and after the glitter of the show itself.

Education is a key policy issue, mainly because of the larger economic strategies of the three main parties, with social and cultural questions occasionally intruding. The promised clear blue water separating the policies of the two larger parties seems to have dried up but there is still much vying for control. An inevitable casualty is anything electorally inconvenient.

During the past few weeks, I have been aware of my own awkwardness when looking at the Self-Government for Schools White Paper and in trying to follow responses to the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech about morality.

On the latter, leading politicians (and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's chief executive, Nicholas Tate) seem to have felt it necessary to rebut all notions of moral relativism and complexity. For instance, the Secretary of State has promised to tighten up on the daily act of worship in schools and Dr Tate has said "everyone agrees" that "faithfulness and loyalty" are fine moral qualities that children should be taught.

However, in schools it is the ethos and nexus of relationships and behaviour, hour by hour, that convey messages about morality. Acts of worship, as many church leaders acknowledge, are more effective and less devalued when they are concerned with spiritual experience and are entered into voluntarily.

As for faithfulness and loyalty, we need to ask, to whom or what and for what reasons? Intensely contentious issues arise when, for example, children's respect for adults, parents especially, arises. Parents are infinitely more influential moral exemplars than teachers or media personalities.

In recent years, we have had to acknowledge the existence of inadequate, even destructive and abusive parents. These are relatively rare, but children need to debate such issues. Less rare, however, is the experience of children whose parents spend little time with them.

Which political party will underwrite the proposal put forward in 1942 in The New Leviathan by Robin Collingwood, the philosopher: "The first step in our campaign is for every man and women who has a child to decide to spend more time in its companyI Fathers, if you get promotion in your job, try to arrange matters so that promotion shall give you more time with your children."

While the White Paper doesn't aim to enter such moral territory, the matters it deals with inevitably contain a moral dimension.

First, in seeking to extend "diversity and specialisation well beyond the outmoded division between grammar schools for the few and secondary moderns for the rest", it needs to make it clear that something is there for everyone. Will there be a specialist school for the pupils who, with their parents, fail to impress at interview? This is what stops city technology colleges being genuinely "comprehensive".

Are there aptitude tests and specialist schools for the disturbed and disturbing? Can there be a fully satisfactory or sufficiently deep moral and social ethos in those schools that are deemed successful, in part at least, because they have managed to exclude the "oiks"?

Secondly, is it not disgraceful that the role of local government has been excised from the education service almost by sleight of hand? There has been no debate; instead, through a decade of legislation, serious policy-making has been removed at a local level.

The White Paper at least has the virtue of clarifying the final gasps of such a process and, it appears, without a whimper of protest from politicians. Perhaps a pragmatic consensus exists about this but, if so, it has emerged without any articulation of the constitutional principles. Meanwhile, local education officers seem happy enough to have retained some responsibilities, but with their accountability more tuned into a nationally determined, OFSTED-inspected agenda.

And so back to Dr Tate's moral concerns and his call for "education for citizenship". Important as this is, it will surely be diminished when there is no locally available political process for students to examine and emulate. Meanwhile, our European neighbours are strengthening their systems of local and regional government.

Few would subscribe to the tenet, "Do as I say, not as I do", in the matter of moral education. Thus, the basis on which children gain access to a school, the practical concern shown by society, school and family for their weakest members and the personal reality of concepts such as citizenship and democracy are three "sincerity tests" young people should apply to those who seek to represent them in Parliament.

Margaret Maden is professor of education and director of the Centre for Successful Schools at Keele University.

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