Quest for new moral givens

10th January 1997 at 00:00
John White welcomes the belated attempt to decide what values society wants us to inculcate in the next generation.

The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's consultation paper on values in education and the community is a slim document, but a significant one. It is a statement of desirable values on which SCAA's l50-strong National Forum for Values thinks there is likely to be broad social agreement. The paper, which is now being revised following wide consultation, has gone back to the forum and recommendations will be put to SCAA and Education Secretary Gillian Shephard in February.

The statement of values covers a bare two sides. It deals with society, relationships, self and the environment. In each area core values are associated with a set of principles for action. On relationships, for instance, valuing others for themselves rather than what they can do for us enjoins us, among other things, to tell others they are valued and to work co-operatively with them.

The SCAA exercise begins to make up for what the public rethinking of the school curriculum from the late 1970s onwards never got round to - working out a set of common values to underpin educational aims and procedures. Instead, content - especially economically-relevant content - became the focus. In 1988 we were given a national curriculum which was over-prescriptive at the micro-level but at the macro, gave no clue as to what it was all supposed to be for.

It was only the Swann Report of 1985 on the education of children from ethnic minority groups that insisted that all our children should be brought up "to participate fully in shaping the society as a whole within a framework of commonly accepted values". The discussion on what these common values should be, which some of us called for at the time, never took place. Now, 11 years on, we are back at the starting gate.

At least we should have learnt by now the folly of trying to begin anywhere else. Both teachers and - as they grow older - students need a shared understanding of why they teach and learn what they do, of the underlying aims and values.

I hope the new initiative on values will not crystallise into prescriptions for a moral education curriculum hived off from and on a par with other curriculum areas. Timetabled work in the area is essential - and the sidelining of personal and social education classes in the wake of statutory requirements to meet national curriculum objectives will now, with luck, be reversed - but all this needs a wider framework. Shared values should be where we start when planning a national curriculum, including the curriculum for science, art or geography.

SCAA is right to start from shared values in society, not just in the education system. Nick Tate, SCAA's chief executive, who set up the forum, is keen on re-establishing the ethical bonds which link us within a national community. What excites me about the values suggested by his forum is their suitability for a new conception of what such a national community might involve, pruned of familiar associations of British superiority over other peoples and altogether more gentle and humane. On this reckoning the new Briton will value democratic participation, respect for religious and cultural differences, self-understanding, moral courage, mutual recognition, the natural world as a source of beauty and wonder, the maintenance of a sustainable environment. If a national curriculum needs to be set within the framework of a decent national community, we are now at least on the right road.

Not that the SCAA value-statement is wholly unproblematic. For one thing, it is a shade too earnest. Most of it is about shoulds, the things we should do as decent human beings and citizens, such as "obey the law and encourage others to do so" or "repair habitats devastated by human development wherever possible". All very worthy and not at all to be pooh-poohed. But not all the values we would wish to encourage in children revolve around moral obligations. Physical pleasures - enjoying the fresh air, bodily exercise, sexual activity, food and drink etc - are values, too. They legitimately play a large part in most people's lives and should not be overlooked. Enjoying art is a value, too, and so is friendship and socialising. The document makes the common mistake of conflating values with moral values in a narrower sense. This is crucially important if it - or its post-consultation successor - is used to generate educational policy. Moral goodness on its own does not constitute the whole of the good life.

At least the SCAA scheme is 25 per cent about the self, so not all its prescriptions are about what we can and should do for others - the staple content of morality in the narrower sense. Self-knowledge is included, and so is trying to discover meaning and purpose in life. This is most welcome, but personal, as distinct from moral, values could have been given even more attention. A central value in a liberal democratic society as distinct from, say, a closed tribal or authoritarian community, is what is variously called "personal autonomy" or "self-determination". The ideal here, which may be approached to different degrees by different people, is that individuals chart their own routes through life, choosing their major orientations and goals. Equipping pupils for an autonomy is an important aim for very many teachers, yet there is no reference to it in the SCAA list.

Or is there? Could it be part of what is meant by encouraging pupils to discover meaning and purpose in life? Here we hit a really tricky problem. SCAA's approach has been to try to locate widely shared values, bracketing off considerations about their source. Most people, for instance, would believe in respect for life, privacy and property, but some would give a religious backing for this and others a secular. The problem is whether the bracketing off is always possible. If, say, a large number of religious people interpret "try to discover meaning and purpose in life" in terms of God's purposes, while secular liberals read into it assumptions about personal autonomy, widespread agreement about its importance might be illusory.

But no initiative such as SCAA's could be problem-free. It is thoroughly to be welcomed. Obstacles and minefields further down the road can be negotiated as they are met. In this country we need greater confidence in the values by which we live, individually and together. Reminding each other of the values we generally feel to be important is a first and necessary step towards the revitalisation of our national community. It is also the starting point for rethinking the aims and content of education, including the national curriculum. SCAA provides us with a vehicle for both these things.

John White is professor of the philosophy of education at the University of London's Institute of Education.

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