Teaching children the difference between right and wrong can befraught with difficulties. Reva Klein reports on a new classroom strategy backed by the Home Office which poses sticky questions to encourage the development of moral judgment, but steers clear of moralising.
Here's a simple tale except for one thing. It has no ending.
Paul is keen on fishing and regularly goes down to the river with a friend. One day, he goes alone when his friend is ill. On the way, he passes a gang of kids who tease him. In the midst of all the taunting, he saves the gangleader's little sister from a serious accident.
To show their appreciation, the gang invites him to play. But their game is called Chicken, and involves Paul being goaded into stealing something from an old lady's shed. He protests at first but gives in to their taunts of "Chicken!".
As he enters the shed and starts rooting around, his heart pounding furiously, the old lady walks in. Thanks to his quick wit, he is able to make her believe that he was looking for odd jobs to do. She recognises him from the village and invites him into the house to look at some of her old pictures and trinkets. After tea and cakes, she gives him a job to do: to take an antique hearing trumpet to the menders. He agrees. As he leaves the house, he breaks out in a run, clutching the object.
What does he do? What should he do? What would you do? Why?
The moral dilemma that Paul faces in the story above is one of a number posed in a Citizenship Foundation teaching pack for primary schools called You, Me, Us. The pack aims not to offer a topography of the moral universe in absolutes, but to look at situations and the implications of the protagonists' actions from different angles.
This process is called moral reasoning and its proponents believe that it could be a significant influence on the lives of all children, and particularly those whose sense of right and wrong is more ambiguous than most people's.
Take, for instance, some of the children at Fairchildes Primary School, where a Year 3 class is using You, Me, Us over 10 weeks. The children live on the New Addington estate in East Croydon, an anomalous sort of place where inner-city grot - high unemployment, bad housing, rampant crime - meets green pastures.
The school is a microcosm of the problems outside it, as schools tend to be. Low expectations of parents filter through to their children and communication between parents and children is minimal. Headteacher Vivian Seddon cites the not uncommon case of parents who didn't know that their son was the captain of the football team. A child from another family told his teacher, matter-of-factly, that "Daddy goes out stealing at night". This is not out of the ordinary. Nor is the father who brought his daughter into the school to report that she had been caught stealing (not a fistful of sweets for herself, at least, but a present to bring in for her favourite teacher).
Against this background and worse, Year 3 teacher Jo Hussey uses You, Me, Us to air issues - thieving, bullying, lying and so on - that some children, if not all, will be familiar with at first hand. Some of the solutions they offer betray a street wisdom way beyond their years.
One exercise involves a boy who sees a girl called Parveen taking an apple from another girl's bag. When the teacher asks the culprit to own up Parveen keeps quiet.
During the class discussion, Jo asks for solutions. One small chap offers his: "I'd say to Parveen, 'Gimme half the apple you stole and I won't grass'. "
Skilfully, Jo challenges this approach without being judgmental, acknowledging and respecting the strong taboo against betrayal among children. In the end, a girl's suggested resolution - "I wouldn't tell the teacher, I'd just tell the person whose apple it was" - brings something close to consensus.
The pack was designed as an orally-based resource, with a strong focus on language development and thinking skills. After the session, Jo reflects on the interesting classroom dynamics that the material has generated.
"The boys most active in the discussion are the lower-ability kids who are in a lot of trouble out of school. It's good for their self-esteem, this programme, because it is one of the only areas in which they can excel. They don't have to be academic to take an interest and an active role in thediscussions."
The Citizenship Foundation is a six-year-old educational charity which has also produced a pack on the law for teenagers. You, Me, Us is the result of a felicitous if odd partnership with the Home Office's crime prevention publicity department, which agreed to fund it with no strings attached. It is available free to schools.
Don Rowe, the Citizenship Foundation's director of curriculum resources, who wrote the pack in collaboration with others, quips that "staff in the publicity department realised that poster campaigns with the message Don't Do Crime Kids were educationally a bit limited".
He is not surprised by the high level of engagement with the material among even kids on the skids. Experience of piloting the pack in 40 schools has shown that chords will be struck through the diversity of the situations represented in the collection of short stories on which discussion is based.
Some of the moral dilemmas the stories throw up are everyday, such as how to respond when a girl is mistakenly told off by a teacher. Others are far outside the children's experience: for example, in another exercise pupils have to decide whether to accept or defy the authority of an incompetent and corrupt sea captain.
Don Rowe believes that it is important to help children to explore the wider dimensions of why something is right or wrong - beyond the fear of punishment - from the beginning of primary school. At that early age, he explains, "Children inhabit an egocentric world where all their interactions are seen in terms of benefits and disadvantages to themselves. Through this work, we can accelerate their development through to the cognitive stages, where they realise that we're all interdependent, that life is very much a communal business.
"We want to increase and sensitise children to the effects of bullying and anti-social behaviour, to build school environments based on the respect of each other."
Sir Paul Condon, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has also called for primary schools to teach children the difference between right and wrong as early as possible. Speaking at a European conference on crime and delinquency, he derided the "sticking-plaster" response to these problems and spoke of the need for a commitment by schools to long-term preventive strategies. "Education of the very young in issues of citizenship and responsibility may prove a far better investment than trying to reform them in their teenage years once they have entered the criminal justice process," he said.
You, Me, Us is based on the United States psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg's ideas about children's development of moral reasoning and the different stages they must pass through in order to make more and more sophisticated moral judgments. It is designed for use in citizenship studies, personal and social education and spiritual and moral development. These areas are traditionally unpopular with teachers because of curricular pressures and also because, as Don Rowe puts it, "There is no real tradition of moral education in our schools. If there's been anything, it's been more moralising through RE, as typified by the former Secretary of State."
Barry Miller, head of teacher education at Bradford and Ilkley Community College points to the US as a country that has taken on moral education more than we have in Britain or in Europe, for that matter. He believes it's time British schools opened their eyes to programmes like You, Me, Us and its forerunner, his own pack That's Not Fair, which incorporates games, role-play scenes and stories.
"I've found in courses we run for teachers that they see the value of a structured programme, rather than assuming that it's done in the hidden curriculum because schools haven't thought about how to explore these issues or what their own value systems are."
In the absence of a pedagogical tradition of teaching morality - apart from the hellfire-and-brimstone approach - teachers feel they lack a theoretical framework. "The presumption is that teachers should have the answers rather than facilitating questioning and exploring issues that lead children into the issues," says Barry Miller. "This material isn't saying 'here are the right values'. It is more an exploration and should be backed up with pastoral support so that when sensitive issues arise, teachers can spot them and deal with them. "There are some teachers for whom this kind of approach comes more naturally, of course. But any teacher interested in exploring questions with pupils can do it."
If the purpose of using this resource and others like it is to open children's minds to the consequences of their behaviour and allow them to work through moral problems, there is also the hope that it will do so on a long-term basis, that children will absorb and retain the understanding they have gained. Realising that aggressive behaviour, stealing, lying or cheating has repercussions affecting other people will have a bearing on the way children interact with the world as remembering the dates of the Tudor kings, for example, does not.
Until recently there was little in the way of empirical evidence to show the long-term effects of this work on children's behaviour. But in two small 1993 Oxford University studies evaluating You, Me, Us a year after it had been used with a Year 6 class, pupils who had worked with it showed higher moral reasoning scores in tests than a cohort that had not used it.
On a more anecdotal level, Jill Rose, who teaches at Swaffield Primary School in Wandsworth, south London, was on the working group that tried out the pack last spring. "It has improved (pupils') moral reasoning and moral awareness and has increased their empathy and understanding of others. They don't instantly become model citizens, but the pack gets them to look at the implications of their actions and that affects behaviour, particularly at primary level. At the same time, moral reasoning shows children that there are not always easy answers. That's a valuable lesson."
You, Me, Us is available free from the Home Office, PO Box 999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 6FS. Only one pack is available per school; teachers should state the name of their school when ordering.