Words into action

17th November 2000 at 00:00
Frances Farrer's new book describes how one school uses the power of language in its approach to spiritual development. Here she reveals some highlights. ome of the biggest questions facing primary teachers concern moral and social development. How do you help children build the qualities and skills that lead to emotional and spiritual intelligence?

Since there is no longer a single authority, such as an official religion, it is difficult even to know what constitutes good behaviour. Is it just a set of arbitrary rules or is it - as at West Kidlington primary school in Oxfordshire - the building of an individual conscience and a strong inner life by means of example, discussion and encouragement?

West Kidlington pupils are taught to consider their behaviour and to notice which actions bring about the best results for themselves and their community. They do this through a values programme which focuses on a different positive concept word each month.

A quiet word The words are introduced and carefully considered during assembly, when there is a story, a reading from the Bible or another sacred text, a song and silent reflection.

The following segment is about trust and also includes several other positive words: "This morning in a moment of silence let us sit very still, close our eyes and feel relaxed. See yourself in your classroom, working hard at an activity, co-operating with others. Feel good about this work. Now think about our month's value - the value of trust - and think about someone you really trust. How do we become trustworthy, so others will trust us? What qualities do we need to develop? Patience, tact, friendliness, co-operation, honesty may be some of the qualities. Choose one to think about during the day. Now open your eyes again."

The effectiveness of the programme is obvious in some children's comments: "I wasn't sure what to do so I thought, which of my values should I be doing now?" The method is so unusual that the school has been the subject of several doctoral theses and is frequently visited by academics. Office for Standards in Education inspectors also noted: "...the excellent behaviour of pupils [is] evidence of the extremely effective provision for the moral and social development brought about through the consistent... application of the values policy".

West Kidlington headteacher Linda Rafferty believes it is hugely beneficial to the atmosphere and functioning of the school. Former head Neil Hawkes, who put the scheme in place, believes that "consciousness can be raised to conscience".

To further elevate consciousness, the words are used in lessons. If you were studying Tudors during the month focusing on respect, for example, you might ask if Henry VIII respected his wives. Reading The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, you might ask which of the positive words could have helped Mary Lennox become friendlier. In this way the concept words, which have been explained in assembly, are reiterated in all subjects.

In conversations led by their teacher during dedicated lessons, children also consider behavioural dilemmas involving value words. The discussions focus on certain actions and their consequences for individuals and society. The class works through potential solutions.

In the playground, Year 6 monitors resolve disputes by saying: "We're supposed to be doing 'co-operation' - so why don't you make up?" The words become the framework from which children view the world and make decisions.

Making it relevant Take the Christmas value word "happiness". What has happiness got to do with behaviour? The answer is that the children observe not only what makes them happy, but also what makes others happy and what they can do to bring it about. Their own happiness is seen to be important and to have an effect on others, and the needs of individuals are seen as capable of being harmonious with those of the school.

An infant class asked what makes them happy may say, "a cuddle from Mum" or "playing with my dog". What do they do to make others happy? "Mum likes it when I say thank you", or "Mum likes it when I tidy up". The questions never take on a moralising tone.

Year 3 might sit down for circle-time and change places if they have had a happy experience during the week, then change again if they have had an unhappy one. This emphasises the frequent changes in their moods. The next game is played in pairs. Children say: "I feel happy when..." then, "I make someone happy when...". They start understanding that other people's happiness is their responsibility. "When you go home tonight, do something to make Mum happy." By Year 6, they are looking at gaining control over their own happiness.

During an art class the children consider the feelings evoked by looking at an artist's work; at how to convey or evoke feelings; at which colours have which effect.

Happiness in maths? Do it as a family and enjoy the joint effort. For example, estimate the number of vegetables needed for dinner while shopping at the supermarket. In the bath, try filling an empty 250ml shampoo bottle with the contents of a 300ml bubble bath container and vice versa. See what works.

During games, happiness might include the feeling you get when your team wins (group happiness) and what the winning children can do to make the losing team happy. They might say: "Hard luck, but well played," knowing that they might be the losers next time.

Take another word: simplicity. At key stage 1 you might look at the simple, natural things you notice on a walk, such as sunshine. Older children may consider how wanting expensive things complicates their lives and how a simple existence might be better. Year 3 may think about things they can do with their friends to improve their lives. They might notice how much fun they can have playing ball and that they don't need expensive toys in order to enjoy themselves.

Teacher John Heppenstall tells a story to older children about a Jaguar car he wanted. At last he could afford it, but he had to think about the implications of ownership: the dangers of parking it outside and the cost of insurance and petrol. He decided to keep his old Saab and keep his life simple.

The responsibility given to the children is another important part of the school ethos. Year 6 pupils monitor the playground, run the office at lunchtime and have their own decision-making council. On Fridays, each year group takes turns at conducting assembly. All this demonstrates the importance of the children's contribution to the smooth running of the school.

Even infants conduct assemblies and although they only sing, the principle of self-reliance is at the base of their social confidence. The plays are carefully prepared: the older children write and learn their parts, practise the piano and make the props.

In an assembly on unity, a group of Year 3 pupils dressed as bees made a honeycomb with hexagonal pieces of paper. The bee who insisted on a different shape had to be excluded because the shape would not fit into the structure. The group's second play was about a village whose inhabitants went to different churches and didn't speak to each other. After a storm, however, they had to work together to mend a church roof. Unity meant fitting the pattern and accepting differences - a sophisticated paradox.

A Quiet Revolution by Frances Farrer, (Rider Books, pound;9.99) further explores the themes in this article


Positive value words are discussed in monthly letters to parents, at parent-teacher evenings and by the children. In the last chapter of A Quiet Revolution, West Kidlington's teachers gave their suggestions for using the concepts at home Quality:

* personal qualities and quality of life;

* the best, highest standard;

* how well you do something or bring out qualities in others.

Parents are role models, promoting good qualities. This means praising the qualities of the family as a whole and individually; talking about or reflecting on qualities of life; finding ways of bringing out positive qualities in themselves and their children, and noticing how well the family, or its members, do something. An understanding of quality also encompasses other values, among them understanding, truth, love, friendship and compassion.


* discuss your ideas of peace and your children's;

* talk about peace of mind;

* encourage your children to discuss their worries and how they can resolve them. Talk about how to set right any unhappiness caused to others. This goes for parents as well as children.

Take the idea of peace within the family, out into the community. Be tolerant and forgiving towards others. Always try to resolve conflict peacefully and be prepared to negotiate.

Hope: As a family, discuss your hopes for the future. A good time for this is New Year when you could decide on something you hope for as a family and follow it through. At birthdays, talk about aims and how the family can support these.

Tolerance: Discuss tolerance, relating it to relationships with siblings. Invite your children to describe three things they like about each other and one thing they have difficulty with. Ask how it makes them feel and discuss the importance of accepting one another, and praise them when they show tolerance.

Thoughtfulness: Talk about thoughtful actions. Every morning for a week, decide to whom you will try to show thoughtfulness, either by saying something to them or doing something for them. Discuss how it made you and the other person feel. Try being thoughtful towards someone you don't like and see if you can see their point of view, even if you don't agree with it. Notice how your perception of that person changes.

The 22 values for living are: Quality, unity, peace, happiness, hope, patience, caring, humility, simplicity, trust, freedom, co-operation, understanding, love, honesty, appreciation, courage, friendship, thoughtfulness, tolerance, responsibility and respect.

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