Values or vacuum?

1st November 1996 at 00:00
The purpose of the National Forum for Values in Education is to identify just what the beliefs are that cement society together - not to seek a new moral Superglue to apply to the cracks opening up in it. The clamour for action sparked off by recent incidents of violence, sleaze and indiscipline lend urgency to the quest to rediscover shared values. But to search out such a consensus is simply to identify what our common ends are, not a means of achieving them, nor even defining what those ends ought to be.

Those who condemn the forum's "shared values" as wishy-washy, or who - like Gillian Shephard - want to see the importance of marriage and family life given greater emphasis, or even those who oppose that for fear of vilifying children not in such conventional families, seemed to have missed the point about consensus. This is an attempt to audit the widely-shared, contemporary core beliefs, not a set of targets for moral improvement.

The kind of question the forum seeks to answer is not whether children should ideally have a mother and a father living in holy wedlock but whether or not there is a near-universal belief in such an imperative. The forum's answer may not accurately divine our collective attitudes. That is what its consultation is designed to find out. But neither the Ministers of the State nor those of the Church are entitled to tell us what we do believe in order to satisfy their wishes about what we should. By definition, shared values are a common denominator and are bound to exclude distinctive beliefs held dear by particular religious, cultural or political groups.

Whether or not statements of collective belief amount to moral truths, as Nick Tate of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority claims, would provide a good starting point for a philosophical debate. But the four shared values and their principles for action have a more pragmatic role to play in supporting the "spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils and society" required by law.

Dr Tate is rightly anxious to emphasise that none of this is aimed at laying down the moral law for schools; thus far SCAA presents an interesting contrast to the messianic approach of OFSTED to more secular pedagogic issues. Nor is this another exercise in laying the blame for society's ills at education's door. Far from being the causes of any moral decay, schools are heroically holding to lines of decency long since abandoned elsewhere in daily life.

SCAA's declared aim is to confirm and clarify public support for that stance and to discover what further support schools require. The decline of the old social and religious certainties has created a values vacuum which schools confront daily. Teachers are not immune from the modern moral perplexities and are entitled to have society's expectations of them made clear and to be provided with the support needed to develop their confidence in this delicate area.

No doubt these shared values will also inform any future revision of the national curriculum. But SCAA should remember, too, that the duty to promote the spiritual, moral and cultural development of pupils and of society rests not with them but with the heads and governors of individual schools. It is they who make up the ultimate forum for values in education.

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