The moral dimension moves centre-stage

25th October 1996 at 01:00
The debate on how to keep children safe goes on. It is about physical safety in the wake of the Cullen report. But it is also about wider aspects of their well-being. The widow of Philip Lawrence, in launching a personal manifesto for a moral revival, has struck a national chord which first sounded after the Jamie Bulger murder and resonates more loudly today. As in every generation, adults have bemoaned the standards and behaviour of young people, but they are now starting to ask whether they themselves, who constitute society, are more to blame than specific influences to which young people are susceptible, such as the media.

Inquiry into the moral health of the nation is to be welcomed. It was notoriously absent in the eighties, the decade when affluence was pursued and when the phenomenon of an underclass was reborn in this country. Mrs Thatcher, it is true, gave her Sermon on the Mound but her message was not one of self-doubt.

In asking whether society has failed young people by giving them no lead and ignoring the pressures on them, Frances Lawrence is not calling for an instillation of old-time religion. For some people the answers that she seeks come in a Christian or other religious guise. But for the majority, the secular nature of modern society means that solutions have to be looked for elsewhere if they are to win wide support.

The common temptation to put the onus on schools is not one which Mrs Lawrence as a headteacher's wife would fall into. She knows that 85 per cent of a child's life is spent out of school. Parents must bear the prime responsibility for providing an ethical framework and setting boundaries to behaviour. They need help, not just those for whom life is difficult but all who confront (or prefer to avoid) the pressures on young people.

The violent images to which all young people are exposed from a tender age have never been proved to cause violent acts. That became clear in the debates following the Jamie Bulger case. But it is hard to believe that constant repetition of violence scenes does not desensitise some young people. When society also makes weapons available (even although knife-carrying is illegal), the risk of injury and death becomes real.

Most adult holders of a gun licence would never misuse a weapon. Most youngsters would never copy the violence they see on television and videos. But society must shield itself against a small minority, and in so doing shield that minority against itself. That is the argument for banning handguns. It is also the reason for asking whether young people need to be protected until they are able to set the violent aspects of society in a context of good and bad, reality and make-believe.

Schools have a role in that maturing process. They do not aspire to be moral arbiters, nor do they expect society to offload its moral dilemmas. But education has a moral dimension, without which young people are diminished and society becomes the sufferer.

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