Once upon a time, in the days of Christian assemblies with a story, a hymn and a prayer, I worked in a boys' grammar school. The headmaster would explain how the boys had fallen short of the school's values and occasionally remind us what they were. The exhortation I remember most clearly was that the boys should live for themselves until they were 30, by which time they would be in better shape to live for others.
I was sceptical about this precept. I felt that men who had been dedicated exclusively to their own progress until they were 30 would be inclined to continue on this path after that age. It is in childhood and adolescence that people most agonise over war and violence and the future of the planet, before they are mature enough to accept the need for political compromise, before adulthood forces them to put domestic concerns first. Preaching selfishness seemed mistimed and dangerous.
Yet this headmaster was a lay preacher and a sincere man. His school ran on the principles of Christian morality, law and order. If not wearing your school cap could seem less a sin than bullying, both were examples of disobedience and lack of respect. The boys knew where they stood and the parents concurred. The concurrence may have been influenced by our being an academically-successful school rather than because they shared our values - but we didn't ask this question.
This comprehensive mixed college is very different. Apart from general expectations that students will do what we want and we will do what they want, we really only have one rule - that violence is always wrong, however understandable and provoked. This was not true in the grammar school, in which the boys were regularly beaten for the almost forgotten crimes of "tomfoolery" and "horseplay", but it is not an absolute precept of Christianity or Islam. I haven't been sure about absolute values since we debated their existence at university 40 years ago, but this works for us, since we all know where we stand and the students accept it.
Of course, it was Nick Tate chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, who led me down memory lane. Educationists' fear that a generation of children has been exposed to a value-free education does seem to me to be nonsense. A speaker at a conference on sex education said once, "Don't let's waste time discussing whether children should have sex education in school, let's discuss whether it should take place in the classroom or behind the bike shed". No organisation, whether it preaches values or not, is value free. Education comes from the formal and the informal (we used to call it the hidden) curriculum. Teachers promote morality by what they are and how they behave, as well as by what they will tolerate from students.
Even those who are most critical of the education system agree that there are more good schools and colleges than bad ones and more satisfactory than unsatisfactory teachers. That's what statements like "A quarter of lessons are less than satisfactory" means, though it doesn't always seem like it. This majority implicitly supports the principles of long-term satisfaction and of doing something because it is intrinsically satisfying not merely because it is rewarding. Students respect the teachers who give more than they are paid to give, and dislike those who do not respect or care about them.
It is teachers who suggest that ultimate rewards - team membership, university places, job references - cannot be achieved without training, hard work and the acquisition of qualities which will make students desirable as employees. Teachers encourage students to address moral problems and not evade them. Teachers, whether Christian or not, have moved from the Old Testament to the New, from the negative Ten Commandments to the positive injunction to value others as one would wish to be valued.
None of this creates a society shot through with "pervasive hedonism". The desire to lead a life of constant excitement and instant gratification does not help young people to gain qualifications or to develop the habit of concentration and quiet study. It may encourage students to go out shoplifting or to take ecstasy, but it's a pain to those trying to educate them. So what has gone wrong? Can schools and colleges hope to put it right?
We are not the rich and famous who provide fodder for the media through their sexual and financial vagaries. We are not the newspapers who titillate their readers while claiming their disapproval of what they report. We didn't invent the Lottery. Our students do care about death and evil and suffering. They raise money for Third World countries and respond to disaster appeals, they care about those who die because they can't get an emergency bed in hospital. They feel strongly about equal opportunities and fairness.
They are influenced by what they see as the values of the society in which they live. They don't want to be told what they should do and how they should behave by those whom they often don't respect. Many of them will not vote in the next election because politicians don't represent their beliefs. Many have succumbed to societal and cultural anarchy.
So what is the answer? Don't legislate from above but lead by example. Make sure the values you espouse for young people are those they see you living by. Concentrate on positive values not negative ones. If you want a nationally-agreed system build on what you will find in schools and colleges if you look. Ask students what such a system should include. Listen to what they and their teachers say and seek for agreement instead of expecting disagreement. Remember that "Do as I say, not as I do", is never really effective.
Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon.