Nurturing reflective, dispassionate learners

14th May 2004 at 01:00
In part two of Neil Hawkes and Frances Farrer's series they explain why schools turn to values education

Concern about problems such as bullying has led to interest in new ideas to deal with the causes. Values education - teaching positive concepts to children from the age of five - is among the most innovative. But is a new approach really necessary? Schools in a study sponsored by the Department for Education and Skills innovation unit gave different reasons for wishing to make changes. Some had experienced upheaval, and felt the need for greater unity. Some had discipline problems. Others needed a spiritual lead.

Di Thomas, head of Greenfield lower school in Bedfordshire, said: "Our children seemed to be materialistic and uncaring in their attitudes." For John Hulett, of Barley Hill school, Thame, there was "an enormous vacuum waiting to be filled, in this post-Christian era".

This really is the crux of it: with no single religious tradition informing the activities of the national community, the world is a puzzling and arbitrary place to grow up in. Who do you ask? Who is your example? When adults are inconsistent, children play one off against another.

The Government's Excellence and Enjoyment paper asks teachers to broaden the curriculum to include programmes to reinforce positive behaviour. The positive values method does this all the time, which makes life a lot simpler.

The question comes back to what education is for. A few weeks ago, we wrote: "education is primarily concerned with the moral process of helping students to be better people, and by so doing, to create a more civil society" (Primary Forum, April 30). We spoke of establishing "a positive school ethos, a context for learning", with "a moral atmosphere". This takes in two current concerns: citizenship and emotional literacy. The element that only breathes its name is spirituality, a concept relevant whatever your religious persuasion, and even if you have none.

When you visit values education schools you are struck by the purposeful, coherent, busy environment. The children have good manners; they generally offer to help you or show you the way. The DfES-sponsored report on nine of the schools using the method speaks of social improvement and genuine motivation, and in a couple of cases this represents nothing less than a revolution. With an understanding of common goals, the schools became more harmonious.

The participating schools interpret the method somewhat differently. One or two continue to use traditional sanctions and rewards alongside it, while they rebuild the framework. In some cases there had been a serious lack of direction. In the lives of adults this is distressing, for children it can be frightening.

And now at last the word spirituality is being used. At the centre of all this effort is the nurturing of a deep understanding of the essential self.

We want to see the child as reflective learner, one who can stand back from what they are doing and observe it almost dispassionately. The calm atmosphere, the clear guidelines, the methodical investigation of positive concepts, all lead to personal security and clarity of thought.

Di Thomas says: "It is now possible to discuss and debate in a natural, interactive fashion during our assemblies. The atmosphere is calmer.

Children now seem more able to solve problems in a calmer more logical fashion. Everyone is becoming more reflective." The report shows that all the schools made improvements in behaviour, self-perception and relationships.

Neil Hawkes is a senior adviser in Oxfordshire. Frances Farrer is a writer and journalist. Values Education: developing positive attitudes, by Dr Tony Eaude, can be obtained from the National Primary Trust by telephoning 0121 303 1198 or via the website www.npt.org.uk

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