Teaching moralsis not good enough

26th January 1996 at 00:00
The idea of schools taking on the teaching of morals to our young has a beguiling ring, conjuring as it does the reassuring picture of principled pedagogues imparting ethical standards, instilling a clear-cut, unarguable notion of right and wrong in the hearts and minds of our children.

At least it does until you start to think about what such an idea means, and what the reality could all too easily become. We should start by understanding that the idea has been floated because Nicholas Tate et al have decided we parents are not doing a very good job of teaching our children about right and wrong and that, therefore, schools should take over where we have failed.

I take exception to this. As a parent - and I believe I belong to the overwhelming majority of parents from all sections of society in this - I have devoted considerable effort, time and arguing skills in endeavouring to help my children evolve ethical standards which respect the rights of others in society, but which are also of their own design, formed through the experiences they have had in life.

But my children's ideas on right and wrong may well not tally with the rule of thumb, an idee fixe, which would become the definition of morality to be taught in schools. For one person's moral conviction is another's unconscionable act as we, and our children, see over and over in our daily environment.

For example, the Government presumably believes it is right in adopting policies which may bring interest rates and taxes down but which mean we now have one in three children growing up in families living in poverty, as opposed to one in four as it was when the Government came to power. Presumably Michael Howard feels he is doing right in attempting to deport 19-year-old Abe Onibiyo, who has lived in Britain with his family for the past 10 years, back to Nigeria where his father, a pro-democracy activist who was recently deported, has disappeared, yet I believe each of these things is morally indefensible.

In teaching my children about right and wrong I will let them know what I think but I will also listen to what they have to say and why they might disagree with me, because I believe it is how we evolve our own ethical standards. It appals me, then, to think that schools might have a kind of inflexible, unarguable, moral national curriculum. It appals me no less to think that teachers per se would be seen as the right people to take on the job.

Teachers, like the population at large, are a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Some might well use notions of right and wrong as the basis for discussion, consideration, a way of exploring how our behaviour affects others and this could be a very valuable addition to what we as parents impart to our kids.

Other teachers, going by the Bible, as has been suggested, might deliver fire and damnation lectures which would be anathema to those of us who have avoided formal religion because we do not approve of this way of coercing children into behaving well. And what of those teachers whose personal behaviour was manifestly in conflict with the teachings they were insisting their pupils should adhere to?

Of course schools can and should play a part in our children's moral development and most of us choose a school at least in part because it has an ethos, an approach which suits our own moral attitudes. We, for instance, chose Acland Burghley in North London for our son because it had a clear-cut policy on racism, sexism and bullying and also because it encourages children to form views of their own. But, as I see it, the role of school when it comes to morals, as with anything else, is to work in tandem with parents not supersede them.

Which brings us back to where this all started - the fact that too many parents are perceived, in these times of moral panic, as failing to give their children a moral framework. But this is not good enough. Parents may be the most important influence in children's lives but the environment in which the young grow up is also very important. I look around me and see a chilling lack of humanity or compassion in those who run the country. We read of growing malnutrition for some, while industry bosses may make gargantuan salaries; we hear daily of shabby acts of dishonesty and hypocrisy being swept under the carpet.

Until that is addressed, asking schools to teach morals is not just a bad idea but a red herring.

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