Our moral purpose is often selfish, not selfless

2nd December 2016 at 00:00
Former education secretary Michael Gove championed the idea of 'moral purpose' in schools
A multitude of sins hides behind the phrase ‘moral purpose’, and it’s time the education sector looked at its motivations more closely

Teaching is suffused with religiosity. There may be no incense in the air but there is often a distinct whiff of piety and sanctimoniousness. It’s referred to as a vocation for good reason, with fervent beliefs trumping firm evidence.

Teachers want to believe. They search for things to believe in. They are purveyors of hope and they want an answer to their prayers. It’s why schools are all too often places where fads receive a warm welcome instead of a cold shoulder.

At the heart of teaching is moral purpose, defined as “principled behaviour connected to something greater than ourselves that relates to human and social development”. It’s a must-have in education, uttered like a mantra.

It’s all about changing children’s lives and lurks behind that oft-recited platitude “making a difference”. But is that more about you than them? Just because it makes you feel good doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing good. In fact, it’s frequently quite the reverse. Many a bleeding heart hides their incompetence behind a veil of beneficence.

“You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to have moral purpose,” said its big champion, Canadian education researcher Michael Fullan. But it certainly helps.

Just because it makes you feel good doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing good

Former education secretary Michael Gove was a big fan, and based his reforms on it, saying that it “animates the work we all do”.

“What unites us is a belief that lives can be transformed by what goes on in schools,” he said. “The precious moments spent in the classroom, the interactions between professionals and students, the process of teaching and learning, can shape futures like nothing else.”

But our moral purpose can be strangely selective, especially when it comes to transforming the lives of the disadvantaged. It’s often only the clever ones that are deemed worth saving. Sir Anthony Seldon, the ex-head of Wellington College and now vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, this week joined the ranks of those agitating for social mobility for “smart poor kids”. What about not-so-smart poor kids? True equity will be achieved only by stuffing some of those in the top jobs to join their rich peers.

And too much of the narrative around moral purpose is about rescuing children from their circumstances, transforming them rather than their environment. Happily, there are some school leaders who work with and within the community. One head in a disadvantaged area in the North runs projects for the community completely separate from their school role, even accompanying parents to medical or social work appointments to support them. That’s transformational for the many, not just the “deserving” few.

Although Gove’s vision of moral purpose was about every child being “able to go to a state school which excels”, it is not, and neither should it be, a concept that’s confined to the state sector. Keith Budge, head of Bedales School in Hampshire, worries that giving up charitable status in response to recent Green Paper proposals would preserve the private sector’s independence – but at the expense of its moral purpose.

The Green Paper emphasises the link between this charitable status and independent schools’ commitment to working beyond their own walls and with the state sector. Before we all rush in with “of course they bloody well should”, we would do well to remember “the untouchables”, those financially challenged state schools being shunned by risk-averse academy chains.

Sadly, for all the sanctimonious bluster, our moral purpose is often too confined, and rarely extends beyond the school gates.


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