Choosing a route through the moral maze

7th March 1997 at 00:00
"Have you no morals?" "Can't afford them, Governor."

G B Shaw

Recent press debates about the need to teach morals and citizenship in schools, the Dunblane Snowdrop Campaign and Frances Lawrence's manifesto seem to have caught the public mood.

Schools have always taught morals and values and governors have a statutory responsibility to "secure a curriculum...which promotes the spiritual, moral....development of the pupils....and prepares pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life".

The regulations on information for parents require a school to include in its prospectus a statement on its ethos and values. Few schools would not claim to have "tolerance and respect for others, honesty, personal responsibility, equal opportunities" as part of their value statements.

But does the anti-bullying policy apply to staff as well as children? Are non-teaching staff included in staff meetings or able to use the staffroom? Do staff extend the same courtesies to pupils and each other as they demand from their pupils?

The definition of the ethos of the school is one of the more difficult things with which governors and headteachers grapple. "I don't know what it is but I recognise it when I see it," is what people say. One headteacher always said that "the best way to judge a school is to listen to the singing in assembly. If pupils and staff sing with gusto and enthusiasm then it is a good school. " Another assessed a school by the condition of the boys' toilets. Perhaps everyone has their own touchstone of ethos.

The best way for the governing body to deal with these dilemmas is to agree a set of values within which their own staff and children will operate and say, "These are the values we subscribe to in this school and this is how we will determine our relationships, our conduct and our teaching."

In defining the school ethos governors are asking: "What are the characteristics, the qualities which identify the personality, individuality and tone of the school?" They need to go back to first principles and determine what it is that defines the school and the education it provides: the, essential core which, if changed, destroys its very nature of the school.

Each school's ethos will be unique and should inform all the practices of the school. The policies are the vehicle for expressing the values of the school and put those values at the centre of all the learning activities promoted by the school. The ethos will determine the aims of the school. In deciding the school development plan, the priorities identified further the aims and enhance the achievement of the ethos.

The statement of the ethos will also be the focus for promoting the school to potential parents and the community. The parents, staff, pupils and the local community will all have a view of the values that should be taught and their opinions should be considered.

The governors I train expect values such as wisdom, tolerance, self-esteem, consideration for others, honesty, ambition, achievement to be taught as well as basic literacy and numeracy.

To ensure that the values and ethos of the school are known to all, their statement needs to be widely promoted.

To aid this, the ethos is often encapsulated into a short, easily remembered phrase which sums up the school's values - a "mission statement" or "motto". Some heraldic mottos spring to mind - "God and my right" or "Through endeavour to the stars".

I recently visited two schools where the ethos statement was very prominently displayed. The first was exhibited on a large banner which said: "Welcome to Springfield Infant School. We aim to work happily together, to do what is right and to seek success." The second was a Roman Catholic school which displayed prominently a carved wooden plaque depicting the seated Christ surrounded by children, again summing up the purpose of that school. Visitors to these schools were left in no doubt as to their values.

One chair of governors quoted Robert Frost when he said: ethos is "the truths we came back and back to".

David Evans is an education consultant who trains governors and clerks governing bodies.

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