Questions of right and wrong

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Annabelle Dixon argues that morals can only be taught by knowing how children develop. I recognised "Tom's" grand-mother as she came into the classroom. She'd been in the local paper a few weeks before - accused of helping herself to some expensive items from a delivery van parked outside a gift shop, an activity, it turned out, at which she'd had some previous practice.

Granny had an old carrier bag in her hand and she dumped it on my table. "I told him it's not right to steal from teachers," she said. Inside the bag was my portable tape recorder, which "Tom", aged six-and-a-half, had removed from the classroom the previous week. Granny had recognised my voice on the tape which was in it.

Granny was old enough at the time to have been subject to all the supposed moral certainties of the pre-Second World War era as she was growing up. The Ten Commandments would have been learnt by heart, along with a string of other moral precepts and all three verses of the National Anthem. She was also familiar, in the mid-1920s, with a world of increasing unemployment and poverty.

My guess is that most of her moral education passed her by as irrelevant, so what seemed to stick and why? Her principle of not stealing from teachers might well have been arrived at by having had some decent and concerned teachers along the way. A street-wise child would also have recognised that teachers were by no means a moneyed class. Did some sense of fairness inform her actions?

Fairness is particularly relevant to children: a perceived lack of it forms the basis for the countless arguments and fights of childhood. It figures large in many adult recollections of their schooling; the unfair teacher is never forgotten and only reluctantly forgiven. Why, in a world that is so patently unfair, should such a pervasive moral certainty survive?

If moral education is going to be of value, if it is to be something other than a wish list for the Christmas stocking of a crime-free society, it has to be based on what children perceive as relevant at the different stages of their development. One of the 20th century's great and frequently wasted gifts has been its insights into the ways in which children - which means all of us - develop.

A system of moral education based on anything else is only too likely to run into the sands of irrelevance - and wither there.

This knowledge in itself poses a moral dilemma: for if we are aware of it, what, as professionals, is our moral obligation towards it and its implications?

One answer is to try to conceal that knowledge; shouldn't we regard it as significant that teacher-training courses no longer include direct teaching of child development as a separate course? What are the consequent implications for moral development?

Inconveniently, however, research keeps surfacing that indicates that we ignore the principles of child development at our peril. In Schweinhart, Weikart and Larness's research (1986 and 1993), young people of 21 who had attended a rigid, formal educational regime in their early years were four times more likely to commit a range of anti-social crimes and misdemeanors including felony and handling offensive weapons, than those who had had a more child-centred regime.

What then had been their experience? Getting very young children to sit still and concentrate quietly on paper and pencil work doesn't happen by accident: it happens by coercion. Unspoken lessons about authority, fear and powerlessness go more deeply the younger they are learned. Have we stopped reading Dickens?

British society is presently wanting children as young as six to sit formal tests. It is also bewailing the rise in anti-social behaviour.

It seems society can't have it both ways. We as adults may be the very cause of much of the deplored "bad" behaviour by setting children unrealistic expectations, providing unsuitable environments and inappropriate experiences both at school and elsewhere through ignorance or denial of child development.

It is difficult to instigate a programme of moral education within a school climate that is becoming increasingly antagonistic to children's real needs. Are schools that exclude children from their reception classes (20 per cent of all primary exclusions and rising fast) able to say they honestly share and implement all the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's "shared moral values"? Can they, in the present climate of competition and market-led forces? What morals are being shared?

There are glimmers in this greyness. Many schools now involve their children in "Circle Time", in which issues of behaviour are aired in a democratic way. School and class councils often fulfil the same function and there is increased interest in the mediation movement which aims to defuse confrontational situations by using the children themselves to mediate between protagonists.

However, for a more structured approach, the Citizenship Foundation pack "You, Me and Us" (Sponsored by the Home Office) is a user-friendly set of materials, mostly stories, activities and games which can be used as one-off lessons or part of a topic. It acknowledges that children acquire their moral standards in a gradual, developmental way and that by interacting through discussions and role-play they can come to the realisation that behaviour and choice have a moral dimension.

My present school was among those piloting the materials and found them particularly helpful, especially at key stage 2. At key stage 1 we found, being a down-town school, that we first had to establish a basic vocabulary with which to communicate. Only one child out of 26 in my infant class, for instance, knew what the word "honest" meant.

We are currently working on a list of things that demonstrate what they consider constitutes "respect" (One item, for example, being that "talking while your friend is working doesn't respect his brains").

Meanwhile, the junior children brought up a moral dilemma that concerned them one circle time. They had previously helped to develop and agree to the school behaviour policy, which is based on mutual respect.

The problem, as they saw it, was that at school they were encouraged to behave in one way, but at home their parents told them to behave differently. The head offered them the only hope we can probably offer all such children: he told them that they were the fortunate ones - they had the chance to decide for themselves, whereas their parents probably had none.

* Schools can apply for one free "You, Me and Us" pack from The Citizenship Foundation, Weddel House, 13 West Smithfield, London EC1A 9HY.

* Annabelle Dixon is deputy head of Holdbrook JMI School in Waltham Cross and one of the authors of "You, Me and Us"

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