Still, small voice of calm

12th April 1996 at 01:00
Opportunities for spiritual reflection occur all over the curriculum and outside the classroom as well, argues Richard Lindley. Teachers don't just do a job, they have adopted a lifestyle. Contrary to all reason - or so it sometimes feels - they have made teaching their career. In all sorts of ways, they have adopted spiritual and moral values in a materialistic world.

Schools are among the most moral and spiritual places in society, thanks to this commitment. Which is why, despite widespread apprehension, "SMSC" (the spiritual, moral, social and cultural dimensions) should hold no terrors.

True, schools may need to tighten up their collective worship, since assemblies are major vehicles of SMSC. Certainly, there should be more awareness of the constant opportunities in the classroom to encourage spiritual and moral issues to emerge. But so far as the ethos of the "hidden curriculum" is concerned, schools are already a long way down the road.

Some odd ideas persist, of course. Some months ago a school governor told me he was looking forward to meeting me again at the spiritualism course I was going to run. Soon after the OFSTED inspection arrangements were made, a public school chaplain in a lecture poured scorn on attempts to measure pupils' spirituality - meaning their prayer life.

There is of course a fine line between providing for "spiritual, moral, social and cultural development" (the OFSTED criterion) and trying to impose spiritual and moral values in an authoritarian way. Largely it is a matter of providing opportunities for structured reflection.

"I think therefore I am" (Cogito ergo sum) is a topical principle since it was voiced by the French philosopher Descartes, who would have been 400 years old this month. Is it so strange that philosophy is taught in French schools, when RE generally is not? But the two are not mutually exclusive, and Sir Ron Dearing has asked for a higher degree of "critical thinking" in English schools.

So far as the spiritual is concerned, the concept of "awe and wonder" is firmly ingrained now, especially in primary schools. But there needs to be some meat to it. As the vice chairman of Birmingham's education committee said recently, "Awe and wonder are fine, but will they help children cope with the cat dying?" She was right. The spiritual encompasses a vast range of human experience. An important part will be an appreciation of our smallness in the vastness of Creation - but also, for each of us, our immense significance. This is an important part of the Christian message. But it is experienced without religious language.

I well remember the silence of a group of approved school boys on the top of a Welsh mountain for the first time. The opportunities for spiritual reflection occur all over the curriculum, in the classroom as well as the mountains: consideration of why and how the ordered world might be as it is in science and maths; experiences of beauty and the numinous in literature; and, of course, mankind's need for God and religion in RE.

The moral will prove no more difficult. The stage may well be set by pupil participation in drawing up codes of conduct in classes or school council. But moral education does not have to be moralistic. I cringe when I tell a story in an assembly, and the head then has to stand up and point out the moral. Stories can speak for themselves, and wise adults will leave room for individual reflection.

The Ten Commandments will play a part in all of this, and so will the more "utilitarian" commands reiterated by Jesus to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. But they need unpicking in terms of the world the youngsters inhabit outside school, and who better to do that than the youngsters themselves?

But first teachers need to be conscious of their opportunities. I would like to suggest that they could help each other with ideas from their own national curriculum experience. Ideas of how to realise the potential for handling the spiritual and considering the moral implications of the curriculum.

All that is needed is for teachers to describe a lesson, as planned and as it happened, and for some brainstorming to follow. Now that the SCAA national forums on the spiritual and moral dimensions, proposed by Dr Nicholas Tate in January, are underway, they might like to consider the idea.

In the meantime, if a school has a SMSC policy that includes time for staff development in this direction, then I reckon OFSTED would be mightily impressed.

Richard Lindley is Director of Education for the Diocese of Birmingham but writes in a personal capacity

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