The great debate about morality has so far generated more heat than light. But it is fast focusing attention on some crucial questions for education over the next few years that go far beyond arguments about grant-maintained schools or the latest tweaking of the national curriculum.
One is the question of how young people develop social values and learn to take responsibility. A second is how they become employable, when employers increasingly complain that what they are looking for are qualities rather than only qualifications. A third is how those at risk of educational failure can be motivated to learn.
Next Wednesday, Demos will be co-hosting a conference on the role of active, community-based learning in young people's education and personal development which will offer some answers.
For the past eight months Demos has been running a Forum on Active Learning in the Community, chaired by David Hunt MP and including politicians, educationists, business people, headteachers and researchers. We have examined learning projects around the country and their relevance for citizenship and values, vocational skills and employability, and motivation to learn both in and beyond school.
The conference is being held in partnership with Changemakers, a national initiative that supports secondary school pupils to run their own community projects, allowing them to lead positive change in their areas and to decide the issues that most affect them.
Debates over morality and citizenship, school exclusions and discipline, have failed to discover the ground that is common to them - the role of personal qualities or capacities, identified by some researchers as emotional intelligence, in equipping young people to meet the challenges they will face as adults. Emotional capacities such as the ability to establish relationships, to understand other people's perspectives, to adapt to different situations and to use communication skills, are increasingly important to achieving success in life.
This emotional development is often neglected by schools. While these capacities are developed through social experience, learning projects that engage with the world beyond the classroom, and young people taking responsibility for budgets and project management, many of the pressures on schools are pushing them in precisely the opposite direction. League tables mean a focus on test scores and formal exam preparation, funding squeezes curtail the resources available for "extra-curricular" activities, and the national curriculum directs classroom activity to such an extent that time to run community projects is hard, if not impossible, to find.
While the education system provides the means to acquire knowledge of specialised academic subjects, it is far less effective at equipping young people with other practical knowledge - such as how to manage a household budget, how to maintain a relationship, or how to choose a pension plan. Nor is it preparing them to be active citizens.
Our research shows that projects led by young people that engage with the outside world are much the best way to support this kind of learning. The chance to choose what you are going to do is often unfamiliar to the young, whether they are at school or have left or been excluded. Learning to take responsibility can only come from exercising meaningful choice and from thinking through the consequences of what you do. Active learning projects, run properly, encourage exactly that.
The conference will present new models of active learning and examine what creates successful projects. It will look at the relevance of active learning for employability, and the role of employers in improving the quality of work experience schemes and provide resources to support projects led by young people.
It will also address one other unavoidable issue: assessment and accreditation. Learning achievements that take place outside classrooms and exam halls need to be properly measured. In the longer term, the conference will ask how education can develop so as to make these learning achievements central to the education process, rather than arbitrary by-products of it.
Speakers include David Hunt MP, Professor Michael Barber from the Institute of Education, Maggie Farrar of the University of the First Age, and Charles Handy. For further details contact Lynne Allison on 0171 278 6601.
Geoff Mulgan is director of DEMOS, an independent think-tank.