Tested in the moral laboratory

26th January 1996 at 00:00
Every school is a powerful moral community or - in the words of Neil Ascherson, writing recently in the Independent on Sunday - a "seething market of behaviour". The management gurus' current craze for organisational values suggests that, in a sense, all organisations are the same. However, the central importance of values and moral discourse takes on a special sense in the education of young people.

This is because the experiences and processes involved in growing up, in moving from childhood to adulthood, are a matter of deep fascination and abiding concern to children. It is not surprising, therefore, that values assume a high degree of significance in schools and colleges as a means of describing a set of beliefs which dispose people to behave in certain ways.

How far and in what way particular values are articulated, expressed and promoted are, of course, separate matters. Presumably it is these issues that have recently exercised the minds of Dr Nicholas Tate and Sir Ron Dearing.

Much has already been said and written in response to the call for a new moral code (Ten Commandments for the new millennium) and to the pervasiveness, or otherwise, of "moral relativism". It is, therefore, with some trepidation that I throw in my own twopenny-worth on the school as a moral laboratory (whether or not it sees itself in that role) and the need to be explicit in equipping children with the means of identifying and assessing moral questions.

Children have well-honed moral antennae (or "bullshit detectors") when adult behaviour is the subject of their experience and observations. Teachers' behaviour towards each other, support staff, parents and pupils is constantly scrutinised and evaluated. If teachers are working in a climate of fear and job insecurity, or if the most senior and best paid of them are deployed only in teaching the most able "high achievers", these facts will be duly noted and absorbed. Likewise, the way the headteacher talks to staff and pupils, the school's relationships with other schools in the area, and the extent to which it excludes some pupils and includes or selects others will be grist to the pupils' moral mill. There is no avoiding this, irrespective of any amount of high-flown rhetoric in assembly.

Many schools have mission statements which assert the equal importance of all children and the striving for high educational standards for all. No doubt these are sincerely meant, but they need to be tested in the moral laboratory. For instance, how does the school's investment of time, money and expertise pan out when younger or low-attaining pupils, with or without identified special needs, are compared with older or well-motivated high achievers? How does the school behave towards its low-achieving teachers? How does it demonstrate in lots of small, practical ways that it is a public institution run for the public good?

Another concern is the need to make use of this rich moral resource and move some of the school's hidden curriculum into its formal curriculum. Pupils need to be inducted into the language and conceptual framework of moral discourse. The current assumption that this occurs as a cross-curricular theme and that Office for Standards in Education inspections represent a sufficient guarantee of good practice, is almost certainly unwarranted.

The Law in Education project and its successor, the Citizenship Foundation, correctly emphasised the importance of the development of "the citizen as moral agent" and, therefore, the need "to think critically and constructively about the role and purpose of rules and laws". Using school rules as a starting point is a simple and obvious strategy, in line with the Community Service Volunteers project which stresses the importance of students "taking part and making the world a better place". The mutuality of this kind of idealism and the skills of critical thinking are at the heart of such an educational programme. Anyone who works with adolescents knows how their idealism and altruism alternate with bouts of scepticism as best and cynicism at worst. Only through critical reflection and analysing the morality and behaviour around them (and in the larger world) will young people be equipped to manage themselves as "moral agents". If, however, their school or college fails to behave self-consciously, acknowledging that its institutional practices and norms are the baseline against which avowed precepts and values are judged, then the effectiveness of even the best critical, intellectual armoury will be nullified.

It would also be depressing if Dr Tate's curious ascribing of "moral relativism" to all or most of us prevented teachers from encouraging students to learn how to distance themselves from making instinctive and over-hasty moral judgments (a far bigger problem, I would have thought, than any widespread "moral relativism"). The Humanities Curriculum Project, led by the late Lawrence Stenhouse, appoint-ed the teacher as "neutral chairman" and this led to similar confusion and false assertions about "moral neutrality". Instead, this pedagogic stance enabled - indeed demanded of students - a systematic and rigorous scrutiny of a range of evidence and value positions relating to some "hot" moral issues. This project materials and methodology offered students a structured forum in which they could explore their own prejudices, strong feelings and uncertainties, whilst simultaneously learning how to exercise analytic control and the beginnings of dispassionate enquiry and empathy.

Our pluralist world, a world which increasingly needs to be thought about and lived in globally as well as nationally, presents young people, especially, with tough ethical and cultural problems. A simple, one-dimensional code of conduct is wholly insufficient. This is why there must be no evading the crucial importance of how schools and colleges behave institutionally and how they discharge their more explicit responsibilities to students in terms of promoting active moral discourse, including a formal curriculum programme.

Such a programme will necessarily involve the humanities, arts and sciences, but it will also recognise the existence of a special language and conceptual frame, so that moral questions can be properly confronted and understood. That parents and other leading players need to be involved is clear, but for the purposes of this column, I have deliberately restricted myself to the dense and important interior world of the school or college.

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