Off the shelf

17th October 2007 at 01:00

As teachers we believe that education should make the world a better place. Do our schools provide their pupils with a system of values and beliefs? ask Ofsted inspectors confidently. Do we teach the difference between right and wrong? Or how to be good citizens? It sounds so simple - but the devil is in the detail. Since the days of Plato all of these have been contentious questions.

Take citizenship. The great virtue of Citizenship, Education and the Modern State (Falmer Press, Pounds 14.95), edited by Kerry Kennedy and surveying international practice and theory, is that it crisply demonstrates that there is no consensus. All over the world curriculum expectation reflects social, economic and political contexts - something that is made particularly clear in Paul Morris's excellent chapter on citizenship in Hong Kong. Only in the 1980s did political, social and moral issues make a curriculum appearance. This is an important and stimulating read.

Is religion, then, more straightforward? Not a bit of it. Not even in Catholic Ireland, according to the symposium, The Future of Religion in Irish Education, edited by Padraig Hogan and KevinWilliams, (Veritas Pounds 6.99). It is the rationale for religion in education that needs to be addressed, not its form and content. There is little consolation here for proponents of the compulsory act of worship. There is, though, a powerful analysis of what Michael Paul Gallagher calls the four forms of culturally rooted unbelief: "religious anaemia, secularised marginalisation, anchor-less spirituality, cultural desolation". The paradox, as Fr Gallagher observes, is that when culture gradually forces religious consciousness into the realm of the private, education has to become counter-cultural. "To be a Christian means opting for a sort of resistance movement."

Precisely. The dilemma that confronts our curriculum supremos is that spiritual and moral education, like citizenship education, is potentially subversive. That, no doubt, is why John Siraj-Blatchford's little book, Robert Owen: Schooling the Innocents, is published over the imprint of the Educational Heretics Press (Pounds 7.95). Owen's heresy, of course was the belief that in the right environment all children have the same potential for learning and for goodness. Siraj-Blatchford makes a spirited case for nurture over nature and (especially) for early play and learning. Owen, however, believed in indoctrination. "Children can be trained," he wrote, "to acquire any language, sentiments, beliefs or manners."

Fortunately, perhaps, that isn't true. If it were, adolescence would be less alarming to solid citizens - and we would be less obsessed with right and wrong as a synonym for teenage misbehaviour. Like citizenship, education is about identity - and John Head's volume in the Master Classes in Education series, Working with Adolescents: Constructing Identity (Falmer Press, Pounds 14. 95), reminds us that the curriculum is so much wasted breath unless teachers can think and feel themselves into the emerging adult's shoes. Issue by issue - work, gender, belief, peer-pressure - he helps us do it. The book, he says, is "overtly pedagogical". In this context, that is no demerit.

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