Into the moral maze
Speaking at this week's national conference on spiritual and moral education, the chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority launched a nationwide "forum" to thrash out a consensus on the moral guidance that schools should be offering.
In a speech largely devoted to a blistering attack on the "all-pervasive relativism" of society, Dr Tate said that schools were among the few organisations attempting to "shore up the moral fabric of our society".
"Schools, by and large, are very moral places," he said. "It is above all schools that are helping to keep the beacon of civilisation alive."
But they could not do the job by themselves. "The moral and spiritual development of pupils is inseparable from the moral and spiritual development of society," he said. "If it is to be taken seriously, it cannot be something that happens through educational policy alone."
He castigated neglectful and abusive parents who worked against schools' efforts. He also criticised schools for ignoring religious education and for offering incoherent personal and social education lessons which could promote a sloppy understanding of values.
A survey of trainee teachers in Cambridge, he said, had shown them unwilling to reach any moral conclusions for fear of offending one or another interest group.
But his chief target was the spread of relativism and the view that "morality is largely a matter of taste or opinion, that there is no such thing as moral error and that there is no point therefore in searching for the truth about moral matters".
"There is no doubt we have lost the robust intellectual basis for our moral life we once had," said Dr Tate. "If ever a dragon needed slaying, it is the dragon of relativism."
He said that the decline of religious faith and the rise of consumerism are responsible for the collapse of society's moral structure: "The preoccupation with self-satisfaction and the infantilising of our images of human life that result from consumerism, and from pop culture consumerism in particular, must be one of this conference's main concerns."
He called for broad national agreement on the values that schools should be teaching, and which they can expect society to support.
"My suggestion is for the establishment of a national forum under SCAA's auspices to look further into the issues we are discussing today," he said. "The aim would not be to impose new demands on schools or tamper with the existing curriculum.
"Rather its function would be to see if there are ways in which the community more generally can assist schools in doing what many of them are doing already, often against heavy odds."
Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the SCAA, told the conference that there was a growing "sense of rage" at the violence prevalent in society and called on schools to take "a national lead in the renaissance of our civilisation".
In response, the shadow education and employment spokesman, David Blunkett, said: "An ethical code should stress both duties and rights in society and offer young people education in areas such as parenting and citizenship. " He pointed to Labour's proposals for a national citizens' service which would involve young people in voluntary work.
Jeremy Taylor, chairman of the Professional Council for Religious Education said: "Dr Tate's lecture was better than the subsequent publicity suggested. He was saying something more sophisticated and more supportive of schools than has been understood. Teachers are already very good at helping pupils. What they need now is backing - from the top down and the bottom up. There is sadly a generation of parents which has neglected its responsibilities. We need more emphasis on spiritual ideas."
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "The vast majority of schools already spend far too much time preaching rather than teaching. Schools are the last institutions that should be criticised. If schools set themselves up to rescue society single-handedly, they're bound to fail."
John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, said: "One has to bear in mind that the proportion of time young people spend in school is very much less than the time spent elsewhere. Schools are fighting an uphill battle against the world outside school which often promotes totally contrary ideas. I'm wholeheartedly with Dr Tate on that.
"However, there are also practical considerations. If schools are moral places already, what difference is a forum likely to make?