The Government's standards chief has provoked debate by suggesting schools play a central role in shaping morality. Frances Rafferty reports
Reports of God's death may have been exaggerated this week as a senior Government adviser was accused of attempting to set teachers up as morality commissars - replacing religion with a new code of ethics and lessons on global citizenship.
But the controversy created by Michael Barber, head of the Department for Education and Employment's standards unit, does pose questions about the role Labour envisages for schools in inculcating pupils with social values.
Professor Barber told the annual conference of the Secondary Heads Association in Birmingham, that with Christianity a "minority interest" there must be new ways for schools to be responsible for teaching citizenship. He said that teachers would play a crucial role in transmitting ethical principles "in the absence of God and Marx".
Education Secretary David Blunkett also said he believed teachers must have a role in "creating a society of civilised human beings".
But Patrick Tobin, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, representing private schools, said it was dangerous to have a state like Nazi Germany where teachers delivered the Government's view of society.
A DFEE official later said there was no question of citizenship teaching replacing RE and worship.
Professor Barber said: "Christianity, which established the ethical codes for the most of the past 2000 years, has become a minority interest, still hugely influential historically and culturally, but no longer able to claim unquestioning obedience and finding it necessary and painful to change."
Communism briefly provided an alternative morality based on the common ownership of the means of production. "Meanwhile, in the West," he said, "without Christianity and without communism, all that remained was the quicksand of cultural relativism and, as the 1980s developed, a rampant consumerism."
By the end of this decade, he said, it became clear to some that an amoral society of unfettered individuals competing in global markets on mobile phones in a world where inequalities are increasing, is inconsistent with ensuring a planet fit for future generations.
He said: "Whatever else the school system in a country like ours achieves, the bottom line surely should be that it needs to strive to create a generation which is not only well-educated in an academic sense but also has a highly-developed sense of ethics and of a global, as well as national, citizenship."
Richard Wilkinson, general secretary of the Association of Christian Teachers, said: "Christianity isn't as moribund as Professor Barber thinks and if he thinks he can find a moral framework without a religious component he is bound to fail."
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "What is the point of teaching pupils about democracy when parties say one thing in Opposition and do another in power?" citizenship drive, page 10