A moral lead from the goldfish bowl

8th September 1995 at 01:00
In my chairman's address to the Headmasters' Conference last September, I referred to "a gaping moral vacuum", especially in the moral leadership of our nation. Although my words were perceived by some as being a strident attack against what has subsequently been called the "sleaze factor" in public life, I was referring to a much wider morality in which there is more to education than its purely utilitarian role of a service industry contributing to the gross national product and in the course of which pupils are taught the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Be that as it may, last week's sad news about the resignation of the Headmaster of Charterhouse and about the allegations made against the Master of Dulwich College have provoked many people to ask me whether my call for a moral lead by educators has not been shown to be threadbare at best and hypocritical at worst.

In the course of my speech last year, I said that "central to the process (of education) is communicating a morality which is caught rather than taught and is dependent on the example and role models set by the leaders of the community". Among the latter category I would include national leaders in such fields as politics, government, senior officers in the Civil Service, the armed services and the Church as well as educators, especially heads.

To this list should undoubtedly be added parents. I happen to believe that the young, in spite of all their apparent certainties about most issues - frequently a cloak in fact for massive uncertainty, not least about their own future - look desperately to parents and those in authority for a lead which simply is not there. And all too frequently they are fobbed off with what is effectively "do as I say rather than do as I do". This insults the intelligence of the young. It has never worked in the past and will never work in the present or the future.

In the sort of morality I am advocating, the thoroughly old-fashioned idea of example - or role model to use the current jargon - remains central. How we treat each other as people, the values we not only proclaim but also live by are very important to the young. Of course, lapses by individuals are desperately regrettable, but they serve to underline human frailty rather than to detract from the principal point of my thesis which remains the objective, even if it represents something of a counsel of perfection.

It is not too difficult to explain recent events as the result of ever- increasing pressures on heads, but I suspect that captains of industry would argue that the current pressures in educational leadership do no more than bring heads into line with pressures with which businessmen and industrialists have always had to contend.

Nevertheless, it remains a fact that heads of schools, especially boarding schools, have to live their lives more and more in a kind of goldfish bowl. That new disease (not yet officially on the medical index) of league-table fatigue, the application to education of the "football-manager syndrome", the increasing dominance of financial over educational considerations - to name but a few of the new pressures - have all had a profound and attritional effect. Under these increasing pressures, it is not altogether surprising that human frailty has come to the fore. I stress, however, that this is a possible explanation rather than a justification.

I have always argued that there is much more to education than teaching. And education is the joint responsibility of parents and teachers. It is not always evident that all parents play their full part not only in teaching but also in showing the difference between right and wrong and in establishing clear and positive standards of behaviour. In recent years, there has been at least a measure of ambivalence amongst educators about whether they have any responsibility in this field or whether their role is simply to teach.

Although I may stand accused of sanctimonious hogwash, I simply cannot accept this. Educating the young and providing a clear lead, moral or whatever, must in my view be part of the educator's role. Educators have immense influence at a very formative stage in a young person's development. If we fail to accept the role and the challenge, we shall stand accused of having failed future generations.

Roy Chapman is headmaster of Malvern College and was last year's chairman of the Headmasters' Conference.

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