Add values to build an ethos

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Asking pupils to think about their attitude towards others can raise achievement and improve results

No less a figure than Sir Ken Robinson has said: "Values for me are at the very heart of education." For the past 15 years I have been developing a philosophy that places valuing at the heart of the school curriculum.

That means valuing self and others, the environment, knowledge, and experience. As a headteacher and an adviser I have worked with teachers, governors, parents and pupils to see if the quality of education could be improved through an explicitly values-based approach to the whole life of the school.

I wanted to see if a methodology that encouraged reflective thinking and personal responsibility, based on the careful consideration of positive values, could be the foundation for personal and school improvement.

This had good results, and the educational philosophy has been embraced both in the UK and abroad. Why should valuing be so important? At a practical level it ensures that the school fulfils the second aim of the national curriculum: to promote pupils' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and prepare them all for the experiences of life.

At a philosophical level, the answer lies in a deep conviction about the purposes of education. Teachers say they became teachers in order to enhance the quality of pupils' lives. They also recognise that their classrooms have the potential to be the microcosm of what the world could become.

They want their pupils to attain the highest academic standards, but they realise that this is only part of the purpose of education. The other crucial element is to enable pupils to develop a personal ethic that brings meaning and purpose to their lives.

These days many people seem to experience feelings of emptiness, boredom and meaninglessness. All too often this can lead to depression, aggression and addiction. A curriculum based on positive values liberates teachers and pupils from this negative spiral. It does it by building the means of maintaining a positive attitude, independent of external circumstances.

Deeper still, and counter to modern materialistic culture, is the understanding that personal contentment comes from shifting our fundamental attitude to life. This perception emphasises not expecting too much from life - indeed, it puts the opposite proposition: that life expects something from us. Such a realisation creates meaning and depth of purpose.

This may all sound very idealistic but what does it mean in practice? Are the effects being recognised? Happily, the answer is yes: the positive effects of modern values work are being seen by leading educationists as a vital part of good practice. In January, I was supporting Herefordshire primary and secondary schools that are embracing values education. Sue Woodrow, head of Weobley high school, near Hereford, is using the values approach to raise achievement and the school community is identifying the values that will underpin the curriculum. Mrs Woodrow is keen to improve the transition of pupils from primary schools, by having a similar values approach that will affect the school's ethos and pedagogy.

Primary inspector Bridget Knight has been building values education into Herefordshire schools, and I have seen her inspired work in several of them.

Sue Jones, head of Garway primary, sees pupil confidence and positive relationships as key to her small rural school's success.

When I visited, I noticed that it was hard to distinguish between the roles of the adults. I was also impressed by the sensitive and joyous way that staff and pupils (particularly, and even somewhat surprisingly, the older children) sang their school's welcome song.

The same positive ethos was evident when I visited Celia Naylor, headteacher at Ledbury primary. It was clear from the respect shown by the pupils for each other and the staff.

Sharing time and discussing the school's philosophy with Celia in the school's quiet garden, dedicated to a pupil who died in a car accident, was a poignant reminder of Ledbury's values. The garden is designed as a special place where the children have space to consider values such as peace, love and caring.

Cradley CE primary, near Malvern, like many of the others, displayed its positive values effort explicitly. In January the focus was on appreciation, which was illustrated in a display in the hall.

The teachers display the focus for the month's value on their classroom doors and reinforce its meaning during lessons.

Teachers' most important job is sending positive messages about matters of significance from today into the future. As those children reach adulthood, these messages will shape our society.

Neil Hawkes is an international education consultant. His latest book is How to inspire and develop values in the classroom (LDA, pound;9.95). For resources and training opportunities, e-mail: Neil.Hawkes@btinternet.com

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