Ethics plain and plural

26th January 1996 at 00:00
VALUES IN EDUCATION AND EDUCATION IN VALUES, By J Mark Halstead, Monica J Taylor et al Falmer Pounds 14.95

Before its decease, the National Curriculum Council issued documentation on spiritual and moral development which suggested that the ethos of a school might be shown through the values it seeks to promote. More recently the Office for Standards in Education inspectors' handbook took up the theme. The handbook speaks of the need for pupils to develop their own personal values and considers that cultural development may be related to pupils' command of the beliefs, values and customs which form the basis of identity in society and groups.

The time is certainly ripe for a clarification of the issues. Are values relative or absolute? Are they subjective or objective? What happens if one set conflicts with another? How are values to be handled within schools?

This book contains contributions from 14 authors and is divided into two parts: the first is theoretical and the second related firmly to the context of the school and the classroom.

Mark Halstead's masterly opening chapter sets out the options and provides some answers. Values may be defined as ideals, principles and convictions which act as general guides to behaviour in decision-making and which are connected to personal identity.

The problem of relativism and absolutism is solved by proposing that, in a monocultural society, children will be introduced to the values of their own society as objective reality. Though this is not possible in a pluralist society, such a society must, if it is to function harmoniously, enjoy some basis for its cohesion in shared values, values which presuppose the pluralist ideal. And so far as schools are concerned, values clarification programmes, which take a hands-off approach, may well be complemented by the stimulus to moral reasoning provided by democratising aspects of school life.

Mary Warnock suggests that, whatever diversity of values exists, there is considerable agreement about how pupils should behave in classrooms, and that this agreement leads into an appreciation of civility. Francis Dunlop insists that values are to be seen as the "qualities of things", a view with which David Best might agree since he argues forcefully that values in the arts are "fully objective" by which he means rationally defensible.

Michael Reiss suggests that health education is really health training and depends on a set of unexamined values. For instance, fatty foods are not themselves unhealthy, but only unhealthy if unaccompanied by exercise. Richard Pring considers the values inherent in the clash between liberal education and vocational preparation. He does not think highly of a government which transfers the values of the market place to education.

Monica Taylor, opening the school-based section, reports on a research project which asked children about their own values. Respect, fairness, loyalty and trust came high on their list. These are noticeably different from the values pupils perceive many teachers to espouse.

Andrew Marfleet, in an interesting examination of the mission statements of schools, reflects on the use parents make of this information and the benefits to schools in drawing up a conscious declaration of the values they support.

There are other papers too complex to summarise here. Environmental values, the ambiguity of values, values in inner-city schools and the planning of a values programme are all addressed.

All in all, this is an excellent book. There is an undercurrent of strong feeling in many of the papers. But this is all to the good since this is a subject that demands a cool head as well as a warm heart. After all, what is the point of debating values if you value nothing?

Dr William K Kay is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Theology and Education, Trinity College, Carmarthen.

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