Party leaders leap on Lawrence bandwagon

25th October 1996 at 01:00
Susan Young reports on prompt political reactions to Frances Lawrence's good citizenship campaign in a week when discipline and violence issues continued to surface. The plea by the widow of murdered London headteacher Philip Lawrence for a national effort to reinforce citizenship and family values, raise the status of authority figures and outlaw violence has unleashed a torrent of approval and political one-upmanship.

No sooner had Frances Lawrence's "Manifesto for the Nation" hit the streets in The Times on Monday than the Government discovered it was about to announce several initiatives which went some way towards her goals, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats were pointing out that many of their commitments also fitted the bill.

The main points of Mrs Lawrence's campaign are to banish violence and encourage civic values; ban the sale of combat knives and close shops stocking them; begin primary school lessons in good citizenship; raise the status of teachers and police; ensure that governments are no longer neutral on the family; encourage parents not to allow children to lead separate lives within the home; and place emphasis on teaching the three Es - effort, earnestness and excellence.

Subsequently, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, announced that an annual good citizenship prize was to be set up in the name of Philip Lawrence.

And Education Secretary Gillian Shephard declared that she wanted citizenship lessons in schools. She may also ask the National Forum for Values in Education - set up by School Curriculum and Assessment Authority chief executive Nick Tate - to speed up its preparation of a moral code for schools, to be published next week. In the midst of her activity, she denied that public opinion was driving the politicians into action.

While Mr Howard has insisted that Mrs Lawrence's plea on combat knives would cause legislative problems, the Government has stressed that the education and law and order elements of its policy package for the coming session would address many of her points. However, little has been said on the raising of status of teachers and the police.

Meanwhile, Labour says that Tony Blair had been talking about civic regeneration well before he became leader, and has pointed out that shadow education secretary David Blunkett has well-publicised plans for citizenship education.

This would probably include old-fashioned civics - how society and government works - mixed in with rights and responsibilities and the basics of right and wrong, and there might be visits from local vicars or police officers.

Mrs Lawrence is understood to have met John Major and senior Government ministers, and there are plans for her to meet Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett.

The new moral bandwagon has drawn a mixed response from unions and parents' leaders. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers said all teachers would support the basic message but that schools must be able to exclude violent or disruptive pupils much more quickly than they can now to convey a clear message.

While welcoming the overall thrust of Mrs Lawrence's manifesto, the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Union of Teachers expressed concerns about how citizenship might fare on an already crowded timetable.

NAHT's David Hart said Mrs Lawrence had articulated the problems very clearly, "but how do you articulate the solutions?" He was concerned that politicians could undermine teachers' work.

The NUT, meanwhile, said that schools had been forced to work with the 1980s ethos that there was no such thing as society and the individual was all. Mrs Lawrence's manifesto was an indication that this was beginning to change.

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