Slip of key sparks a moral panic

This week's furore over teaching right and wrong seems to have been caused by an over-enthusiastic piece of editing.

There were outraged howls over breakfast tables this week at headlines announcing that schools were being banned from teaching children right and wrong.

Angry callers to radio phone-ins attacked teachers for allowing moral absolutes to give way to woolly relativism and hastening the collapse of society.

The story originated from an article by Tim Ross, the Press Association's education reporter.

He had waded through the latest batch of correspondence between the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and ministers, published occasionally by the quango on its website.

There he found a letter from Ken Boston, QCA chief executive, to Ruth Kelly, then Education Secretary, updating her in March on the authority's work revamping the key stage 3 curriculum for 2008. It set out plans to simplify the general aims of the national curriculum, replacing 664-word statement with a condensed bullet-point version less than half its length.

The original document said education should reflect "enduring values" and "in particular, develop principles for distinguishing between right and wrong". The shortened 315-word version, simply said pupils should have "secure values and beliefs".

The change was lambasted by the Church of England, academics and the press.

"Rarely have officials drawn up proposals so inept, so out of step with current thinking and so likely to stir up public anger," thundered the Times. The Daily Telegraph suggested schools might promote values which were dreadful but which believers held sincerely, such as nihilism and "homicidal Islamism".

The Department for Education and Skills seemed surprised at the fuss, insisting the draft of the document was still out for consultation and that it wanted teachers to continue discussing right and wrong.

The QCA noted that the new wording said young people should be - among other positive aims - "responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society", who "challenge injustice" and "change things for the better".

A spokesman said the changes were intended to cut out waffle and make the aims more accessible to teachers. "You couldn't have put the original ones on a poster," he said.

The demand that schools teach children the difference between right and wrong was only added to the national curriculum in 2000 after a campaign by Nick Tate, Mr Boston's predecessor.

The National Union of Teachers said the line was unnecessary and that teachers felt it was patronising: they should be trusted to teach the difference between right and wrong as a matter of course.

Tabloid alarm was also sparked by another change in the curriculum aims, which the Daily Mail's Richard Littlejohn claimed "removed the requirement on schools to teach British history".

The shortened aims have indeed dropped any mention of Britain, replacing it with a statement that pupils should "understand different cultures and traditions and have a strong sense of their place in the world".

However, the old document never mentioned a singular "British cultural heritage", as several newspapers claimed. Instead it said schools should develop "pupils' sense of identity through knowledge and understanding of the spiritual, moral, social and cultural heritages of Britain's diverse society".

And far from abandoning the teaching of British history, the Government has recently set up a working group to see how it can be improved.

Although the draft aims are now likely to be revised to satisfy the critics, further fireworks can be expected. The QCA has indicated that once it has finalised the new curriculum aims for key stage 3, it will need to look at those for primary schools.


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