The principal responsibility for determining the moral and spiritual values with which children should be inculcated rests not with schools, the Archbishop of Canterbury or even Dr Nick Tate of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. It is the duty of parents. That is why, for instance, the international court of human rights asserts the right of parents to choose schools which accord with their philosophical beliefs. And why parents may withdraw their children from religious education or worship.
But schools do play an important part in children's moral and spiritual education, both through their underlying ethos and the formal curriculum. They are bound by the 1988 Education Act to secure a balanced,broadly-based curriculum which "promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development" not only of pupils but "of society"; an extraordinary requirement to be enacted by a government then led by a prime minister who famously doubted the existence of such a thing. And in the absence of any legal definition of moral or spiritual development, it falls to heads and governors to judge what values should be promoted, in the knowledge that they may be held accountable by parents.
Such judgments involve both opportunities and dilemmas, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, recognised in a speech to the Lords last week; a speech which was more insightful than many reports of it may have suggested. For a start, he recognised the "strong moral concern" of many young people, particularly over human suffering and the environment. And he preached, with suitably ecumenical quotes, the importance of schools giving priority to what it means to be a good citizen and a moral person as well as to the more utilitarian skills and aptitudes.
He wisely pointed out the need to develop the spiritual and moral dimension of all subjects. It should be part of "the teaching of the arts, of music, of literature and of course in the endless mysteries of science" rather than confined to the ghettoes of religious or personal and social education. A point that seemed lost on ministers when they systematically stripped national curriculum subject proposals of anything that smacked of social or moral implications.
Dr Carey recognised, too, that schools, far from being the causes of moral decline, are often the "oases" of morality that John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association spoke of this week. And he was sympathetic to the difficulties teachers faced when society itself was "confused and reticent about its shared beliefs and values" and felt it was losing a public sense of moral order. But moral relativism, the "widespread tendency to view what is good and right as a matter of private taste and individual opinion", concerned him greatly. And he welcomed SCAA's attempts, as he put it, "to consult widely about the shared values which society expects and authorises schools to transmit to children".
The idea that there are some simple rules of play which bind society together is a superficially attractive one. SCAA's examination of these issues may help schools to clarify their spiritual and moral aims. It is hard to see it succeeding in chiselling out a new set of commandments by committee, however. It is easy enough to say the nation is as one in condemning Dunblane; we hardly need to be told that slaughtering innocents is wrong. But what moral consensus can there be about abortion, adultery, divorce or the acquisitiveness that drives the market, to take a few examples at random? Dr Carey himself recognised in his speech that "the toughest moral decisions are not always between right and wrong, but between two rights that pull in different directions."
The questions he believes important are:"What makes life worthwhile, how can we seek fulfilment, how do we try to cope with pain and death and ugliness?" A moral and spiritual framework and vocabulary to tackle these is what children need, not simplistic rules. SCAA and Dr Carey are right to think this is an undeveloped area in schools, not least because teachers are reluctant to claim to be authorities when they may be confused or embarrassed about their own beliefs.
As a Christian leader, the archbishop naturally rejects any idea that moral rules can be taught in isolation from spiritual questions. And there were calls following his speech for tougher enforcement of collective worship. But is a common religion - a common belief about God, the purposes of life and the values that transcend the individual - any longer one of the strands which bind society together? Some might wish it were. But that does not make it so.
Is it any longer reasonable to expect secular, as opposed to church, schools to address moral and spiritual issues from the standpoint of a particular religion, even a non-denominational one? Worship should be a family affair.