Whose job to teach pupils right from wrong?

11th April 1997 at 01:00
The Government-sponsored National Forum for Values in Education and the Community prompted some interesting and constructive debate, as well as controversy, by publishing a framework its common values earlier this year.

In the not-so-distant future that debate will help the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to produce guidelines on schools' approach to pupils' spiritual, moral and social development - guidelines promoting whole-school strategies and encouraging increased rigour in personal and social education, an important vehicle for such work.

But not everyone welcomes the initiative. Some claim the area is so dangerous that schools ought not to get involved. They argue that the spiritual and moral issues are parents' domain. Others believe that if we are to "protect pupils from parents and priests", we must educate pupils scientifically.

The fears of those who would counsel schools to steer clear of such guidance stem from a misunderstanding of what is being advocated. They have mistakenly come to the conclusion that schools will be told to engage in explicit teaching of spiritual, moral and social issues, and that this will take place in all lessons.

This view is probably behind Chief Inspector of Schools Chris Woodhead's diatribe against pastoral care - his claim that "teachers should not be agony aunts devoting their time to solving pupils' personal problems".

There is a small minority of teachers that believes schools ought to concern themselves primarily with instilling self-esteem, and only secondarily with academic work. But such an approach is self-defeating - self esteem is like sleep, it is best achieved by those who do not make it their goal. Mr Woodhead is right to argue that the best way a teacher can help pupils is to encourage them to see that if they exercise self-discipline and perseverence they will come to understand, and this will bring them self-respect. Most teachers understand this.

The idea that schools should concentrate explicitly on pupils' self-esteem is self-defeating. But claims that schools ought to avoid the area altogether are untenable. One cannot teach without influencing pupils' values. Indeed there are few more spiritually uplifting experiences than coming to understand something previously opaque. And the need to engage with others in building a school community plays an important part in the development of social skills.

Schools must involve themselves, then, in promoting pupils' spiritual, moral and social development, but their best way of doing this will often be to promote, by means of high expectation, pupils' achievement in other areas. The minute we see this, of course, we also see that most schools do this already. So what is all the fuss about? Well, schools can no longer promote pupils' spiritual, moral and social development simply by concentrating on academic achievement and leaving the explicit promotion of their spiritual, moral and social development to parents, the church and the community.

Increasing secularisation means fewer youngsters have a faith that provides them with guidelines. Increasing divorce rates also mean many parents are too concerned with their own affairs to attend to their children's development, and increasing mobility has made many communities too fragmented to make good the loss.

There are many young people, in fact, whose spiritual and moral existence is promoted only by their school. And this is why SCAA - and society - must actively think about how best to support schools in this work.

All these considerations were behind the National Forum's recommendation that SCAA produce guidance, supported by a directory of resources, booklets of case studies, guidelines for community service and a glossary of the terms commonly used in this area. They were also behind the forum being asked to identify, if possible, values upon which everyone could agree. The belief was that if there were such values - and consultation has shown there is - these could be used locally by schools, and nationally by SCAA to: * Instill confidence in those who believe that as a pluralist sociey we have no common values

* Trigger debate about the best way to promote these values and about what other values we embrace (no one, after all, is suggesting these are our only values)

* Elicit support for schools from parents, employers and the wider community (if these are values to which everyone would subscribe, everyone ought to support schools in their promotion of them).

We must recognise that schools cannot do this job on their own. It is no good expecting them to instil society's values in children if children only have to leave the school gates to see that adults ignore them.

Similarly it is no good for schools to teach children to resolve disputes peacefully if they need only open a newspaper to see small disagreements being stirred up daily into something larger. And it is no good employers insisting that schools turn out honest employees if they are dishonest themselves. If we want our children to develop spiritually, morally and socially we must work in partnership with schools to achieve this.

Marianne talbot is college lecturer in philosophy at Brasenose College, Oxford, and a consultant to SCAA

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