Skip to main content

To point down the road to ethics

Willis Pickard introduces a four-page guide to how moral issues can be tackled in the classroom. In a Year Five class the pupils are considering the age-old dilemma of the broken window. Football is banned near the windows and yet a ball has smashed a pane. Should the pupils identify the culprit or should they exercise collective silence and risk all being punished?

The debates which such a hypothetical (or actual) set of circumstances produces show the class to be engaged in values education, and yet many teachers would not recognise the term, or if they did, would be highly suspicious of it. In Moli re's play, M. Jourdain was amazed to be told that he had been speaking prose for 40 years. Should teachers revel in their practice of "values education"?

There is a movement in the country to emphasise the importance of values in school and classroom. Partly it stems from the Government's interest in the ethos prevailing in a school. Partly it reflects society's concern about children's appreciation of right and wrong.

The Jamie Bulger murder case is regularly cited in this context: do schools have a duty to instil notions of basic morality in their pupils when, all round them in the media, images are portrayed which suggest might may be right, that choices are individual, that in a secula, multicultural society teachers should neither be expected to pass on their own values nor adopt those which may be hailed as common to national traditions and culture but which they may not share?

An increasing number of educationists reject relativism, the notion that agreed positions on right and wrong cannot be achieved and therefore cannot be passed on to the next generation. Hand in hand with a belief that schools should lead pupils to a consideration of moral issues in the hope that they adopt socially acceptable modes of behaviour goes a confidence that children's thinking skills can be stimulated to consider ethical debates in a remarkably sophisticated way.

Values education is not, however, to be confused with moral education. Clearly, it can have a part to play in religious and moral education in both primary and secondary. But its proponents see it stretching far more widely. Concern for the environment, the rights of minorities, animal welfare - such areas which often excite young people more than the older generation raise questions about values and invite debate. Offering ways to focus constructively on the arguments is another priority for values educators.

A national Values Education Council is in the process of being formed (see page 24). It is intended to provide a network for organisations working in the field and to increase the awareness of developments, especially for the benefit of teachers.

Undoubtedly the profile for values education has been significantly raised by the activities of the Gordon Cook Foundation, which is based in Aberdeen. It has sponsored a directory with more than 100 entries on resources available for, and research being undertaken about, values education. It has the rare characteristic in British education of being well resourced itself - and the reason for that is the story of a remarkable benefactor.

Victor Cook was an engineer who would rather have been a teacher. When he sold the family foundry in Aberdeen during the first oil boom of the late 1960s, he decided to devote some of his substantial fortune to promoting citizenship among young people. Gradually, with the help of sympathetic educationists whom he called upon, his ideas were refined and brought up to date. He lived a bachelor into his nineties, and I recall meeting him a year or two before his death in 1990 at a meeting of the Scottish Educational Research Association where he was intent upon impressing on young researchers the need for work on values issues for the sake of youngsters.

The Gordon Cook Foundation - so called to include his mother's maiden name - carried on his work under Bill Gatherer, a former chief adviser in Lothian, who this week handed over to Bart McGettrick, principal of St Andrew's College of Education in Glasgow. It has given grants to researchers north and south of the border, and sponsored lectures and publications by philosophers and educationists such as Lady Warnock and Richard Pring. Its emphasis is turning to the classroom, where it backs projects aimed at helping teachers introduce values topics within the national curriculum and the Scottish 5-14 guidelines.

Like other values educators the trustees of the Gordon Cook Foundation have had to face teachers' concerns on two fronts. One worry is experienced by all interest groups which would like to see more of their subject within the school life: teachers say that the curriculum is already overcrowded and that they have experienced enough change and innovation in recent years without taking on further burdens. The other concern is with the meaning of "values education" and the fear that education can lapse into indoctrination.

North of the border the Gordon Cook Foundation has sought to involve the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, which advised the Secretary of State and which has been responsible for introducing the 5-14 curricular guidelines. But the SCCC has maintained a distance, arguing that there is a distinction between "values in education", which it would support, and "values education" as an element of school life or of the curriculum.

Where the foundation and the SCCC would concur is in seeing a need for materials to help teachers in primaries and secondaries. The embryonic Values Education Council also embraces groups which are keen to work with teachers. In particular, programmes of personal and social education, not to mention those of RE and moral education, stand to benefit from the packs and approaches developed by values educators, all of whom would insist that there is no proselytising agenda whatsoever.

It is to practical support which teachers will look. Yet just as many other educational developments - child-centred learning, for example - have depended on practical expression of a philosophic approach, so values education can be viewed as more than a set of user-friendly packages. It is based on a view of the role of the school in society.

In a newly published booklet (Values, Education and Responsibility by Elizabeth Pybus and Terence McLaughlin, Centre for Philosophy and Public Affairs, St Andrews University), Terence McLaughlin, lecturer in education at Cambridge University, puts it simply: "Education and schooling are inherently value laden, and values are an inescapable part of the responsibility of teachers and educators".

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you