As the Archbishop said to his flock...

28th May 2004 at 01:00
If ministers want values they have to be prepared to tackle difficult issues head on, says Douglas Osler

Tony Blair might have said it. We have three priorities facing our society: values, values, values. It took the Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow to see past the headline fuss about the Scottish Executive's recent proposals on sexual health among young people and to spot the wider challenge. He encouraged us to reflect on the kind of society we want to live in and so to influence our children's inheritance.

There are plenty of lobbyists willing to determine, for example, the kind of environment the next generation will inherit but reluctant when it comes to speaking out on moral issues. This debate was about whether the Government's proposals, endorsed within the medical and social work professions, were treating results rather than causes. Were they increasing risk by accepting wrong as inevitable? Were they giving a signal that if ill-advised behaviour was made safe, it could be socially acceptable?

Any teacher of history, modern studies or religious education knows that a line must be drawn between indoctrination and influence. Advising pupils to vote for one party because it is the best is wrong. Showing them that racial discrimination damages society is right. That is a value judgment of our time - but we should be willing to be judged by contemporary values just as we should judge historical figures by the moral standards of their time. It is as right for teachers as it is for parents to try to influence the values of the next generation.

Alongside that advice, most schools now encourage questioning and debate.

That provides the balance to any perception of indoctrination. Young people will challenge adult values and test them. Out of that tension comes their own set of beliefs. Solzhenitsyn, a dissident from the moral culture of his state, has his headmistress Aglaida Fedosyyevna saying that the chief aim of education is "to bring up young people as citizens, that is to say as individuals with an inherent mistrust of authority".

That brings into focus an important set of issues about the individual and society. Government does have a duty to clean up the mess when values are breached and, as on this issue, to try to stem the rise in unintentional pregnancies and sexual ill-health.

Nevertheless, there is something eroding about settling for clearing up the mess rather than aiming to put a stop to the cycle by tackling the moral issues head on. Governments aren't good at laying out the moral law they intend to govern by. They should be. Do we want a society that accepts actions we know to be harmful as inevitable? Are there any impassable lines? Do we have a view of what is right?

There is discussion in schools about whether it is right to take a stand by insisting on certain socially acceptable values. Some teachers claim that this is taking advantage of impressionable minds. But if there is not general agreement in the teaching profession on the values which underpin our society, it becomes more difficult to take a stand when there are actions that really are beyond the pale.

Why is it unacceptable to attack teachers in school if there is not a clear value that teachers deserve respect? If young people are not clear about what is acceptable, we will give encouragement to those who feel alienated from society, from the accepted social values and norms which underpin society and from the schools which they see as a reflection of that society. We will be picking up the pieces again in special measures rather than tackling the root causes.

Young people value signals and absorb their meaning. It came as a surprise to find from recent research that most teenagers acquire their career ideas from their parents rather than from any other source of advice. They do absorb values and attitudes from adults even if they exercise their right to test whether the advice works. It is clearly wrong to pretend that the influence of parents, the peer group, of the community beyond the school and of the images of the world portrayed in the media do not have a direct role in conditioning values and attitudes.

Some schools face acute problems with parents who do not subscribe to the values of the school or of society and lack any sense of the value of education. That is why schools need to know and state what are the values they hold and be allowed to stand by them. Many schools play this difficult role extremely well.

It is good to encourage young people to make up their own minds - that is what good education is about. But schools, like functional families, have to insist that their personal sets of values take into account accepted social standards. It is a difficult balance but tackling it is at the heart of education.

Teachers can't teach in a moral vacuum. They have a clear role in promoting positive values and beliefs; in informing by example. Teachers need to be encouraged to declare these values and not made to feel they are out of order in doing so. They need to be supported when they take a stand. They need help in tackling the causes not the consequences.

The balance to be struck between indoctrination and firm teaching of values is a fine one but society is right to expect that schools will transmit a set of values and norms. The challenge is to develop citizens who will contribute to and improve our society from within the conventions of our time. The conundrum for individual schools is to identify and encourage social values while encouraging debate, critical thinking and flexibility of opinion. They are not helped in that if all we do is sweep up the pieces when it goes wrong.

No form of human behaviour is inevitable. Fear of saying no is no way to govern.

Douglas Osler is former senior chief inspector of schools.

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