Dr Tate's tablets

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Nick Tate, the Government's chief curriculum adviser, must be very pleased with his week's work. His suggestion that some new commandments should be drawn up to help to teach children right from wrong has attracted the sort of saturation coverage normally only accorded to great political events and the Princess of Wales's emotional traumas.

The chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has publicly lamented the lack of moral guidance before, of course. Addressing a conference only two months ago he complained that children thought "morality was largely a matter of individual taste". But on that occasion his condemnation of moral relativism went almost unnoticed by the media, partly because no one mentioned the key word "commandments", but also because London headteacher Philip Lawrence had not yet been stabbed. His murder, like the killing of James Bulger by two primary school boys three years ago, has fanned fears that many of the present generation of children, deprived of two-parent family life and the shepherding arm of the church, are spinning out of control.

Pessimists who subscribe to that view can point to the threefold increase in the number of children excluded from school over the past three years. Other research has suggested that up to 100,000 working-class youngsters have slipped into a twilight world of chronic unemployment and criminality, and are drifting beyond hailing distance of mainstream society. Furthermore, parents and youth organisations appear either unwilling or unable to provide as much guidance as they once did.

A National Opinion Poll survey of 2,000 fathers showed that less than half had discussed behaviour, religion, or rights and wrongs with their children in the previous month. Meanwhile, the Girl Guide membership has declined by 64, 000 over 12 years and Brown Owls are becoming an endangered species because so few working mothers can find the time to run a Brownie pack.

These are depressing statistics, but it is highly questionable whether schools could lead the sort of moral rearmament campaign that Dr Tate envisages. John Patten, the former Education Secretary, liked to suggest that some schools were "value-free zones" but that was ridiculous. It may be true that some teachers shy away from moral conclusions for fear of offending some faith or interest group. But the same thing cannot be said of most schools, as Dr Tate acknowledged.

The vast majority of schools do adopt a strong moral line and have behaviour policies advocating sharing, mutual understanding and forgiveness as well as punctuality and politeness. No one, however, will ever be able to fashion a curriculum that guarantees goodness, largely because children spend only about a fifth of their waking hours in school and are therefore open to innumerable outside influences.

"To expect school education to determine moral development is like expecting a city water supply to abolish all sickness," wrote E L Thorndike 90 years ago in his book, The Principles of Teaching Based on Psychology. The words remain true today.

Nevertheless, most children are keenly aware of the difference between right and wrong, even in this secularist age. Teachers know that, even if politicians don't. That does not mean, however, that schools would not appreciate more support from parents and government, and a better example from the rest of society. Heads have felt even more alone since the advent of local management. And their job of inculcating moral values is not made easier by the decline in respect for institutions such as the Church, monarchy and Parliament.

The main political parties and Dr Tate believe that devoting more time to citizenship classes will help arrest this rot and they may be right, particularly if children are also given more time to practise making moral decisions. But it remains to be seen whether schools will be prepared to swallow SCAA's "tablets", even though they would cover such commendable traits as honesty, respect for others, politeness, a sense of fair play, forgiveness, punctuality, non-violent behaviour, patience, faithfulness and self-discipline.

It is true that Thomas Arnold's concept of the English gentleman helped 19th-century schools clarify the personal attributes they wanted to encourage. However, Dr Tate and Sir Ron Dearing must know that it will be much harder to achieve a consensus at the end of the 20th century over commandments drawn up by an unelected "Moses Committee". The country does need the leadership of people who can exert moral authority, but it can do without moral authoritarianism.

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