Morals coated in many colours

19th July 1996 at 01:00
Here we go again. We've had Nick Tate and Chris Woodhead on moral decay. Now it's the Archbishop of Canterbury's ecclesiastical soundbites about being "bound together by important shared values" and finding moral and spiritual value "in the teaching of the arts, of music, of literature, and of course in the endless mysteries of science".

The Archbishop wants "an end to moral relativism" and a "strengthening of the moral fibre". Christianity rules because, after all, only 10 per cent of the nation subscribes to other faith traditions. So it's Anglican assemblies and a return to the moral certainties of about 1953.

But it's not going to be that way. There is a crisis in school, at home, in the family, on the streets. Children seem to be out of control, without direction, without beliefs. But the problem and the solution lie elsewhere.

First, we have allowed the life-blood of education to be sucked dry in the terrifying vacuum of a metrically mechanistic national curriculum. It doesn't have to be like this. I beg The TES to publish Norway's equivalent code, with its deeply human regard for overcoming self-centredness yet standing up against prevailing orthodoxy, for developing empathy, for the value of awe and wonder, for the love of nature. Maybe Tony Blair will read it instead of re-inventing setting and calling for more computers.

The Office for Standards in Education belatedly recognised the inner life of the child in its thoughtful paper: Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development, which encouraged debate in schools. But what happened to the promised response? A thousand schools replied. The follow-up was suppressed.

So, instead of a broad debate about the complexity of morality (and did you hear the Archbishop sidestepping the Royal divorces?) and a careful redefinition of spirituality in a post-modern world, we have the Church and the School Curriculum and Assessment Auth-ority dancing round calling for some moral quango.

Let's be clear - and here I'm right with His Grace - that we cannot have morality "in isolation from spiritual questions about what life is for and what really matters". SCAA please note.

Second, we need to re-define or replace this vexed word "spiritual" so that it can be embraced by the humanist and believer alike. Love, enthusiasm, creativity, play, perseverance, team effort, social action, self-awareness, reflectivenessI all these and more are signs of the human spirit at work.

Third, this human spirit is not nourished by a dead, chopped-up curriculum. Only when we recognise that science, art, religion and the humanities form parts of an indivisible whole, and that our relationships with each other and with nature are the fundamentals of education, will we begin to breathe life back into education. Yes, we need a skilled workforce, responsible citizens and discerning consumers, but we are also nurturing the guardians of the Earth, the parents and partners of the future who will face complex moral dilemmas in their relationships and in their confrontation with medical technology.

The entire domain of feelings lies fallow and untended in school policy-making. Where does our national curriculum talk about beauty, awe or mystery? Such references as there were in early drafts have been quietly removed.

It's one thing to silence the teachers and schools, but it's another to try to ignore the young themselves. They simply aren't interested in our prescriptive morality. As recent studies show, a new generation of teenagers is shifting towards inner-directed goals: empathy, connectedness, autonomy, "deep green" consciousness. They are all too aware of the dynamic tension between freedom and responsibility. It's their world, and moral exhortation isn't going to impress them one bit.

If you are interested in maintaining some full-colour humanity in education, please take some time now to put pressure on OFSTED to tell us what we all said. And if your school has a clear and strong recognition of the wholeness of the curriculum; the reality of inner development; of the interconnectedness of the spiritual and moral, please get in touch with me and I will seek ways of sharing good practice.

Kevin McCarthy teaches RE and drama at Our Lady of Sion secondary school in Worthing. He can be contacted at 66 Beaconsfield Villas, Brighton BN1 6HE. Tel: 01273 500651.

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