Critical awakening on morality

8th November 1996 at 00:00
A vehicle already exists for developing moral values and critical thinking. It just needs to be recognised, says John Montagu.

The latest waves in the moral crusade are flooding schools with yet more demands for discipline and standards, as though teachers do not have enough to think about already. Frances Lawrence's appeal, the report from the School Curriculum and Assessment Council's Values Forum, and Nick Tate's proposal to give A-level general studies a new core on "critical thinking" are accompanied by renewed calls by politicians and leader-writers for more moral content in the classroom.

And yet they are not presenting anything new, rather an opportunity to develop what is there. There is already a clear statement in the curriculum requiring schools to promote the "spiritual, moral, social and cultural" development of pupils. What is different is that "critical thinking" on moral values is increasingly being seen as government policy, not an option but a requirement at every level of education.

For example, within the suggested new general studies core, "moral responsibility" would be explored even in areas like science and mathematics, while "moral values" would be extended to topics embracing culture and morality, arts and humanities. Values in society would also be studied in topic areas on society, politics and economy. And there could be an AS-level on critical thinking, along the same lines.

All this is good news for those growing numbers of teachers and others who would like to see development education, or global awareness, formally identified as a key cross-curricular theme for all ages. It is the ideal vehicle for moral development in schools. International issues, human rights, citizenship and "values in society" are today all well represented in materials from numerous specialist organisations.

From the child's point of view, education which embraces other cultural experience seems ideal. Every child's family already provides the moral background and the school reinforces it. In a plural society made up of many different cultures and faiths there is no point in creating an artificial moral climate in school, if it does not reflect the child's experience at home. A broadly based curriculum was defined in the Education Act precisely to project a wide spectrum of social custom and religious belief.

Religious education has always been left vague as it is the only subject which is decided locally. In every school there are compromises. Where teachers fail to interest children in school assembly they will succeed in other periods. However illuminating the Gospels, or Narnia stories, may be to the majority of children in most schools, they will not satisfy anyone who is more familiar with the Ramayana.

In this wider context the advantages of development education are considerable. It helps teachers to make choices in fulfilling the needs of the broad-based curriculum. It provides many, if not all of the issues, ideas and moral attitudes required under subject headings such as geography, history, the arts and modern languages as well as RE. It offers a range of attractive, high-quality, moderately-priced resources. It gives children opportunities to study careers. It also provides them with a lot of enjoyment.

Development education does not have the status of a cross-curricular theme and cannot be an exact discipline. It is open to criticism by educationists and civil servants who say it is incapable of definition. At the same time it has achieved strong support from schools, and is now recognised as one of the reliable avenues of high-quality education at all levels. The problem is that this recognition does not extend to policy-makers, and global perspectives in the classroom have been left to the initiative of individual teachers.

The Development Education Association has published new curriculum guidelines for teachers and publishers which show there is ample opportunity for demonstrating that global awareness is not a fashion or an option but a clear fulfilment of statutory obligations. In key stage 1 and 2, for example, there are requirements to teach a range of cultural, development and environmental issues. In geography countries have to be studied first as localities and then at various stages of their development. In history there are references to study of a past non-European society. There are may links with other subjects through cross-curricular themes such as citizenship and environmental education.

Obviously there is a need to measure performance in development education, and there are encouraging signs that OFSTED inspection reports like to demonstrate the kinds of initiative which go with global perspectives. One West Country school impressed the inspectors with a Caribbean theme which included a visit to Brixton - the first time many pupils had any experience of another culture.

A central area of the curriculum where development education can flourish is the aspect of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Many inspectors who have little technical knowledge of geography will soon tune in to the school's response to SMSC sub-themes such as world suffering, human rights in the community, social organisation, and participation in cultural traditions.

Many schools and colleges now have direct experience of exchanges or overseas partnerships and they can use these in many contexts in the school. There is a lot of scope for training from aid agencies who are important education providers, but in many cases they have had to cut back their programmes. Oxfam, second only to Christian Aid in its scale of funding in this field, has recently had to lose half its education staff and Save the Children is reducing its budget by 25 per cent over two years.

The Overseas Development Administration accepts that development education is important and it is trying to expand its Pounds 700,000 programme to encourage smaller initiatives outside London. But they can't, as an agency for aid, spend a very high proportion of their reduced budget in the UK. The European Union, which has been a reliable source of funding, and most recently the National Lottery Charities Board, which is now preparing to assist projects which "enhance understanding of development", are the most hopeful alternatives.

The Labour Party's manifesto contains some promising sentences including the setting up of a Development Education Council to co-ordinate a strategy for raising awareness of development issues. The manifesto contains a broad sweep of good intentions typical of a party in waiting, and not all its promises will be met. There is no mention of moral education but at least it offers some encouragement.

The aid agencies and churches have challenging views on many international issues which could be more widely shared at various levels of education. This government, which in various disguises appears to support them, can demonstrate this in the next curricular review if it really believes in reaffirming moral and spiritual education. The evidence is that schools are now taking it on, but acceptance often depends on the ingenuity of teaching staff rather than the system which can sometimes appear to work against them.

John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, initiated the first ever Parliamentary debate on development education in the House of Lords in March. He has worked as a journalist with Christian Aid and Save the Children

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