Business of ethics

12th April 1996 at 01:00
With the setting up of the National Forum on teaching morality and spirituality in schools, Nicholas Pyke watches one organisation tackling the subject head on.

The weeks leading up to Easter saw some quite extraordinary gatherings. The National Forum on morality and spirituality in schools has swung quietly into place with discreet conclaves of specialists. Policemen, teachers, magistrates, youthworkers and trade unionists have all been treading up the concrete ramparts of Newcombe House in west London, the grim 1960s home to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. There, they have been cogitating on how society at large might best help schools remain civilised and civilising institutions.

This Forum is, of course, the initiative ordained by the Government's chief curriculum advisers, Sir Ron Dearing and Dr Nicholas Tate at their recent high-profile conference on spirituality. They hope that if nothing else, it will publicise the fact that schools' efforts in this direction need support from the world outside.

Such help will no doubt be gratefully received. But while schools can point to a good record on what is sometimes called the hidden curriculum - they are for the most part acknowledged to be moral, peaceable places - they still face the problem of what to tell pupils on a formal, abstract basis. How, in particular, to discuss morality, without preaching. This is what creates unease, as the letters pages in this and other newspapers demonstrate. But as the SCAA and the Office for Standards in Education make equally clear, it must be done.

One of the organisations invited to the Forum is unusual in tackling this problem - the question of what to teach formally - head on. The Jewish Association for Business Ethics works with both commerce and education, offering seminars and presentations to businessmen and schools. More to the point, it gives schools and pupils a particular excuse to deal openly with ethical, even philosophical, questions on that most attractive subject, money.

Can stealing be justified if the loot is for a good cause? Is it really theft to copy a mate's computer software? Does it matter if you're given too much change? Or sell a bit of a dud? These were the questions dramatised by professional actors in front of 40 rather neat boys at the prestigious Haberdashers' Aske's School in Elstree, Middlesex. It was accompanied by group argument with two well-suited city businessmen holding the ring.

The Association also visits city boardrooms. A recent gathering of lawyers in Baker Street, London, saw senior solicitors kicking around professional dilemmas in which, for example, the good of the firm was tied to a minor form of bribery: a commendable end through an immoral means.

As it happens the young gentlemen within the Wedgewood blue walls of Haberdasher's were well ahead of the game and had no apparent difficulty locating the moral heart of the issues at hand. (Whether they act accordingly is of course a different matter.) But their non-controversial approach was far from the norm. The Association makes regular school visits and says that almost everywhere it goes, there is a sharp division of heartfelt opinion, with a minority sincerely advocating selfish behaviour.

"We do have a diversity of views," said Lorraine Spector, the projects director. "People take very strong sides. There is always a minority with a very immoral view, and another, smaller minority, which is moral about things. The great majority of people in between haven't thought about it.

"It's common for students to come out with the old line that 'it's each man for himself. Why be moral - look away. What does it matter'. The whole point of the programme is to get students to debate the issues among themselves. That way they get to understand the arguments."

The Association has so far taken its presentations and lectures to more than a dozen schools in the London area. Many of these are, as you might expect, Jewish. But it has much broader ambitions and is already working alongside the (Christian) Institute of Business Ethics, and the Christian Association of Business Executives on a programme extending to all schools. The Jewish Association has 20 trained business people willing to brave the pupils on its books.

By the end of the month, the three organisations together hope to have 40. The Muslim College is also keen to get involved.

These organisations have an obviously religiously base, but it should be said that the Jewish Association's presentation assumed no religious knowledge and was to no extent prosletysing, sticking at a level of practical ethics (the consequences of one's actions etc . . .).

Lorraine Spector says that such matters are, in any case, very much tied up with general notions of "critical thought" and are not solely the province of specifically religious ideas - a point made in the piece below by Richard Lindley.

The signs are that the connection between, ethics, philosophy and RE will continue to get stronger in the curriculum. All three areas have the particular support of Sir Ron Dearing and the SCAA. The latest short-course GCSE papers in religious education are particularly notable for their strong emphasis on moral and ethical debate.

The syllabus D course from the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board is actually titled, "Thinking About God and Morality" and requires candidates to consider a broad sweep of philosophical issues, including, "the design of the universe", "the problem of suffering", and "absolute and relative morality". Not to mention "wealth and poverty".

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