Torn between profit and purity

16th March 2001 at 00:00
Is David Blunkett right to expect schools to teach pupils business ethics? Reva Klein reports

Next week the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, will join forces with the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, to launch a new initiative to encourage the teaching of business ethics in schools The case for such an approach will be underlined by a survey which will reveal the attitudes of 13 and 14-year-olds to money and morality. The survey is expected to focus on young teenagers' willingness to sanction shoplifting and other forms of law-breaking.

It will also mark the release of a "money and morals" teaching pack - the first programme on business ethics designed for schools.

As the saga of the Hinduja brothers' lavish courting of ministers here and abroad continues to unfold, it seems a good time to attempt to clarify the distinctions between sweeteners and bribery, between little white lies and deception, and confront the moral dilemmas faced in our daily lives, especially at work. The question is: are schools - already groaning with the pressures they are under - the best places in which to broach these questions?

The Jewish Association for Business Ethics thinks so. The London-based charity has been taking business ethics workshops to schools and sixth forms for the past six years and is responsible for the pack and the survey. "Our experience of schools is that students want to explore and debate these issues," says Lorraine Spector, the association's director and co-author of the pack. "They generate some passionate debates."

Publication is in response to the demand from teachers for a resource they can use in the classroom. Aimed at key stage 4 and post-16 students, it's designed to be used as part of personal and social health educationcitizenship, business studies, economics or religious studies.

The pack contains a thought-provoking and interactive curriculum. Its aim is to get students to draw on their experiences and values as they are presented with everyday moral dilemmas in the workplace, which they're asked to discuss. While the text contains some Biblical quotes, "the basis of the pack draws on ethical perspectives that transcend religious denominations", says Lorraine Spector. The scenarios cover a lot of ground: the temptation to write CVs based more on fiction than fact, how to see through hyperbolic advertising claims, sharing insider information about a company takeover with your stockmarket-dabbling family, offering or being offered "presents" to win business contracts. The teachers' pack offers suggestions for discussion points and press cuttings of real-life situations.

Inevitably, there are those inside and outside the education world who ask whether school is the place for learning about business ethics. The Bishop of Blackburn, who is chair of the Church of England's education committee, is dubious about schools being given responsibilities that traditionally have been the preserve of family and spiritual leaders.

He said: "Schools are perceived as the prime fixers of applied morality. They're expected by society to do what society itself finds difficult. I give all the support I can to teachers trying to set standards for community life not just in lessons but in the ambience and ethos of schools.

"But ... we live in a society which doesn't have an overwhelmingly accepted moral code. MPs pontificate all the time that if only schools do this or that, the world will be a better place. But I don't believe it. There are other sectors of society that also have tremendous powers and responsibilities, like the media."

From the corporate angle, Roger Opie, director of education at the Industrial Society, disagrees and welcomes the attempt to break new ethical ground in schools. "The Industrial Society's 1998 report, '2020 Vision', surveyed 10,000 young people. One of the points tht emerged was that young people felt they weren't being prepared adequately for the world at work."

He believes that the curriculum needs to be "freed up" to accommodate wider skills and competencies that business expects from young people. "Please, please let's have more of these kinds of initiatives. I'm optimistic that some key players like David Blunkett, David Hargreaves at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and Gordon Brown are aware of these issues."

What do young people themselves think of delving into these areas? Copthall girls' in north London piloted the pack in its sixth form's personal, social and religious education department. Gelareh Abbasi, a Year 12 student, used the module of the pack that deals with advertising. "One of the lessons was about a salesman in a computer shop who pressures a customer to buy a more expensive computer than she wanted to buy. It really made you think about how people behave in these situations. I hadn't come across these kinds of issues before. We usually do sex education and drugs and stuff."

Fellow student Sarah Haynes adds: "What was really good was how it showed that there are lots of grey areas in morality. It created some good discussions."

Says their PSRE teacher Callum Jacobs: "Students doing economics and sociology are more familiar with this territory. I used the pack as a starting point for looking at moral and ethical issues and found that the scenarios were relevant to the students and engaged them."

Employers and directors say that young people coming into the workforce with an awareness of business ethics and the potential pitfalls awaiting them is a good thing.

A report by the Institute of Directors in 1998 identified honesty and integrity as the most important personal qualities of those taken onto the board, followed by commitment and loyalty. That there's a need for young people to think analytically about their values and how they interface with the hard-edged world of business is beyond doubt. They need it for their own development and they need it as part of the portfolio of skills that they will be taking with them once they enter the workplace.

Independent health consultant Adrian King says: "Schools have an uphill struggle to fight against the materialism and the view that status comes with income. So I'd be happy to see genuine attempts to develop young people's critical thinking that will help them analyse the messages that bombard them. But the whole area of teaching ethics and morals is fraught with difficulties."

The Money and Morals Curriculum pack can be ordered from the Jewish Association for Business Ethics. Phone 0208 2008007, email


George, the manager of a large retail company, is invited by one of his suppliers to accompany her to the England International in Paris, complete with private jet, five-star hotel, "the works".

George happily accepts the offer. A few weeks later, the supplier Helen calls and says she won't be able to get away, so would he like to use her ticket to take his daughter?

George tells her he's not sure. "Joining you by way of corporate entertainment is one thing. But tickets for my daughter and me could be misunderstood as something else."

David is struggling to write a CV when his friend Sarah walks in and encourages him to embellish his profile.

When he says he doesn't have anything to write under skills and experience, she has him write that he is "experienced in major software packages and has multi-platform experience" when he can just about use a word-processor.

He tells her that he did some gardening for a few relatives over the holidays, she has him write that he "established and ran a gardening and landscape business for the past two years".

Examples from the Money and Morals teaching pack

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