If preaching won't work, try practice

9th June 1995 at 01:00
David Ingram looks at ways for schools to get to grips with concepts of fairness. Explicit curriculum courses, though effective in raising moral issues and promoting moral thinking, are not in themselves sufficient to bring about moral changes in the life of school communities, and the wider world beyond schools. That became clear to the Norham Foundation, an educational charity concerned with social values, through experience with the development of moral education in the United Kingdom and North America.

In any case such courses were not being adopted by schools on the scale which would be necessary, to meet the goals of the more optimistic protagonists. A wider, whole-school approach was called for.

In 1974 Lawrence Kohlberg at Harvard had begun to develop a school community approach to moral education and over the years he and his team built up a considerable body of experience. In particular, his work with disaffected youngsters in the Bronx, inspired others to attempt similar schemes.

The Norham Foundation-sponsored centre at the University of Leicester was linked to this. In establishing the Just School Project the Norham Foundation did not mean to imply that all moral problems can be resolved by reference to this one dimension. Justice is, however, a central value in community life, based as it is, on respect for persons. It deals with how people should be treated. It may have its developmental origins in immediate personal experience but ultimately it goes beyond family, friendship or personal interest and is the foundation of citizenship and public life.

At the first meeting of the heads involved in the Just School Project, at Lincoln College, Oxford, Sir Maurice Shock, president of the Norham Foundation, said the debate about education of the past 25 years had morality at its heart, with responsibility, justice, citizenship and a sense of community as key ideas. Schoolchildren were at an age when preaching fell on deaf ears, and practicing what could not be taught by teaching was absolutely crucial, he said, but the practice should be built on research and study.

The Just School Project was established to explore the practical steps which might be taken to develop schools in which justice was a central concern. This work is now being extended by the Schools and Values Project. As each school explores its own ideas and practice, there will be no one answer and the exchange of ideas and experience drawn from particular circumstances will contribute to a shared educational rationale and a developmental model related to pupils, staff and institutions. If teachers in the participating schools are to be supported, as they engage in the effort required for institutional change, they will need to be reassured that there are "paybacks" in terms of the achievements of pupils, more positive behaviour in the classroom and greater job satisfaction.

In the first instance, schools are places where communities have to be built by strangers, they are public institutions in a democracy. Justice therefore has to be a fundamental characteristic. Teaching children how to operate in the public domain is an important task for schools. A school, however caring it might be, with its necessary commitment to impartiality and accountability, is nevertheless different from a family.

An early activity of the Just School Project was a survey of children's moral experiences and their thinking about them. The focus was the first year in secondary school; the project's plan being to follow these students through their secondary school years. Pupils in years 6 and 7 from Leicestershire, Dudley, Dorset and Wiltshire reported on a personally chosen situation, when they thought someone had been unfair. In addition year 6 pupils were invited to look forward to their forthcoming secondary years and their hopes for relationships there, with teachers and other pupils; while year 7 pupils reported on their experiences. This was to provide a platform for determining areas for development.

It was clear that these pupils not only had a concept of fairness but they wrote with considerable intensity about their experiences. When Year 7 pupils were asked how teachers would treat pupils in an ideal school, respect (20 per cent), was the highest category, and came before, being nice, kind or friendly (13 per cent), and not shouting or being bossy (9 per cent), could be seen as another dimension of respect.

Another concern of these pupils was related to discipline, an inevitable element in the power relations between teachers and pupils; 11 per cent of pupils looked for fair discipline, and another 10 per cent for good discipline, while 9 per cent looked for fairness in terms of equal help or opportunity. They wrote: "I would like teachers to respect pupils just as we respect them and if we did not understand something and we asked even three or four times, not to shout."

When year 6 pupils were asked how they would like to be treated by teachers in the school to which they were going, fairly and equally was rated as highly as being treated well or nicely (22 per cent); explaining work and keeping discipline along with general competence (14 per cent) were just ahead of being treated with respect (12 per cent).

How sometimes small-scale events are dealt with by the teacher can remain with pupils into adult life. In workshops, when teachers are asked to recall incidents that happened in their school days, the emotional force attached to these memories can be very strong indeed.

Developing the school ethos requires a commitment on the part of senior management which goes beyond systems of organisation. Interpersonal relations between teachers and pupils, pupils and their fellows and between teachers themselves, all contribute. Change in this domain is dependent on the quality of leadership provided by senior staff and the development of a whole school policy includes all teachers and support staff.

If the everyday life of the school is to become the focus for critical attention and provide the opportunity for practical activity, so that social and moral education can be grounded in experience and concepts grow from working with this, then time needs to be made available for it.

When it is planned that moral development should be rooted in the experienced life of the whole school community, then strong leadership is required, to support the staff and guide the programme of institutional and staff development.

Pupils will see any mismatches between public statements of values and how they think life in school should be on the one hand, and the lived realities of practical community life on the other; between what they might be told about justice and how they experience it in practice. Nevertheless it is this mismatch which fosters learning and drives the search for solutions, leading to enlarged conceptual structures and enhanced social skills.

Moral problems in the life of the school become an arena for learning rather than the focus for confrontation. There is, however, research evidence to show that when pupils experience such a mismatch in any school and it is not addressed, then they can become disillusioned and their whole attitude to school impaired.

The Schools and Values Project, with financial support from the Gordon Cook Foundation, will in its first phase, focus attention on the strategies employed by a small group of pilot schools as they develop a whole school approach to values education. This broad approach will provide the opportunity to bring together and apply in practice much that has been learned from recent research and development.

The Schools and Values project aims to provide: a clear view of school development strategies; the attendant training and consultation needs; the use that can be made of existing resources; and the identification of outcomes in terms of changed school climate, curriculum, and pupil development.

The Norham Foundation can be contacted through David Ingram at Brockington College, Enderby, Leicestershire LE9 5LG.

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