Another view - Resurrection of moral and spiritual agenda is hard to believe in

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

When the Church of England and the British Humanist Association are found singing from the same hymn sheet, we are likely to sit up and take notice. And when we find their joint anthem has further education as its subject, we might be forgiven for asking: what?

The answer is represented by the initials SMSC, which stand for "spiritual, moral, cultural and social" - normally found with the word "teaching" or "support" attached. You might as well get used to them now as SMSC is showing all the signs of being the next "big thing" in FE.

A working party led by the inter-faith body the National Council of Faiths and Beliefs in Further Education has just finished consulting on what it describes as an SMSC "good practice guide". As it has input from Ofsted, the Learning and Skills Network and the 157 Group among others, the next step will be some sort of implementation.

For those of us on the front line, two questions come to mind: do we really need an injection of spiritual, moral, cultural and social teaching? And if the answer is yes, how will it work in practice?

On "need" it is hard to argue against the general point that FE students should have access to a curriculum that goes beyond the specialism they have chosen. Issues seen as vital when they are at school - personal development, citizenship and understanding of the world around them - don't just go away once students enter the door marked "college".

It's with the specifics that the problems begin. For instance, what to do about the first of those initials, the "spiritual" dimension? "Spiritual" is a box of linguistic frogs - one of those tricky words that means whatever its current user wants it to mean.

The SMSC consultation paper offers eight bullet points on "spiritual", covering such diverse areas as relationships, imagination and curiosity, feelings and emotions and "recognising that knowledge is bounded by mystery". That's quite apart from the obvious religious dimension, covered in the document by "beliefs about God" and "developing personal views on religious and spiritual issues".

You might think you are on firmer ground when it comes to initial number two: M for moral. After all, don't almost all religious and secular bodies agree on the broad outlines of how we should live our lives? Well, yes . and no. Take that basic proposition: thou shalt not kill. Everyone signs up for it, but to different people it can mean quite different things. Just try leading a discussion with students on capital punishment, abortion or war - particularly current wars such as those going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet such problems are likely to be nothing compared with the practical difficulties of getting the thing to work in the classroom. Do we try to integrate SMSC into mainstream teaching or develop it as an "add-on" to the timetable? It's hard to see how the former will work, particularly in the many practical subjects that make up much of the FE mainstream. For instance, God's role in unblocking a U-bend might be a tricky one to sell.

This is where things really get sticky: with consumer resistance. If it's an add-on, experience tells us that however all-singing-and-dancing the sessions are, the "punters" will vote with their feet and stay away.

Those of more venerable years will recall the fate of general or liberal studies in FE. For more than 20 years, this was an essential adjunct to most courses. During that time - in the interest of broadening a narrow curriculum - it tackled the above issues and more, but was dumped in the 1980s and 1990s by the more utilitarian - and many would say equally ineffectual - "key skills".

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