In praise of society's last moral guardians

5th September 2014 at 01:00
As our children navigate an ever more fractured world, we must recognise schools' vital role as places to learn shared values

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of taking part in judging the TES Schools Awards. As expected, choosing between the entrants was extraordinarily tough. Each school had a unique ethos. Every single one was doing wonderful things for its students. It was clear that children adored being there.

In fact, the experience confirmed something I had thought for some time: that schools are uniquely moral places.

With the decline of some faiths and the expansion of others, schools have become the only places where common values, transcending faith and political belief, are promoted and, indeed, enforced. In an increasingly turbulent society, schools represent a stable moral centre - often the only one to which many pupils have access. Yet teachers' responsibility to promote society's values has never been really articulated. Neither have the implications for their professionalism and status.

One of the finest studies I have read in the past 10 years is not Robin Alexander's excellent Cambridge Primary Review (bit.lyPrimaryReview), but one of its preceding studies, Community Soundings (bit.lyCommunitySoundings). Of all the voices represented in this report, those of primary school children are the most powerful. Alexander describes them as being surrounded by deep pessimism created by fears of climate change, global warming and pollution. They were no less anxious about local issues that affected their security: traffic, lack of safe play areas, rubbish, graffiti, gangs, knives and guns.

However, the research found that, in deep contrast, there was nothing gloomy about school life. Children spent their schooldays in "communities within communities". These, the report says, provide "unfailingly positive and dynamic settings for children's development and learning, highly valued by children, parents and the wider community".

This, Alexander rightly argues, is "not so much something of note, but of celebration". Indeed. Without being dramatic, it sometimes seems as if schools are solely responsible for making children optimistic about their futures and that of the world.

Don't look back in anger

It has to be admitted that many adults indulge in negative nostalgia; school playgrounds are remembered as places of bullying and fear. But for the vast majority of children, nothing could be further from the truth.

A close colleague of mine, Maurice Galton, whose primary education research goes back decades, once told me that children deeply resented the trend towards Continental days that eliminated lunch hours. Lunch breaks and school playgrounds represent increasingly rare spaces where young people can make and keep real (not virtual) friends.

Indeed, the latest volume from the Programme for International Student Assessment on students' engagement and beliefs finds that four out of five children are happy with school. Mexican and Indonesian students are the happiest and South Koreans the least happy. Student happiness ratings in the UK are above average - findings that seem to confirm Alexander's analysis.

Children are also very clear about what they want from their ideal teacher. Surveys of their views invariably produce versions of what has come to be known, after research by John MacBeath, the leading academic on self-evaluation, as the "Mother Teresa Charter".

So where does all this leave the teaching profession? Every minute of every day against a maelstrom of family, religious and political beliefs in children's lives, teachers have to arbitrate what is right and wrong. They have to make snap moral judgements that are fair for all pupils. Teachers are expected to encourage every child to be optimistic for the future. Whether or not a school has a religious affiliation is irrelevant. Ask children to identify their top priority for their school and they will say that they want to feel safe and happy. A school that doesn't focus on this is not a successful one.

The responsibility for securing schools as optimistic, happy and, yes, moral communities can only be shared equally by all teachers; a fact that, incidentally, throws into sharp relief the absurdity of performance-related pay.

The general election is less than a year away and yet there seems little understanding among the parties that optimism can only be promoted by a profession which is itself optimistic. A fundamental understanding of the teaching profession's vital role in society should be at the core of party manifestos. The consequences of that should be reflected in proposals which enhance the profession's self-efficacy and confidence, its autonomy and its status, and which, above all, fully recognise teachers' responsibility for children's futures.

John Bangs is an honorary visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge and former head of education at the NUT teaching union

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