Is moral purpose tightening its grip?

12th February 2016 at 00:00
For centuries, the view that schools should serve a higher ‘moral purpose’ has held sway, but now it is feeding an obsession with instilling discipline that is crushing students’ imagination and independence, writes Martin Cohen

Schools have long entwined a grand moral purpose with their apparently very practical one. As long ago as the 17th century, the spread of literacy was closely associated with the rise of Protestantism and the idea that all believers should be able to read the Bible and apply what they found in it to their own lives.

Today, religious authority has simply been replaced by a supposedly universal, secular ethics. And certainly, it sounds much better to say that all schools “should have a moral purpose” than it does to say that all schools “must promote certain political strategies”. Yet the difference is really only in the eye of the beholder.

The history of UK education has repeatedly shown that it is easier for schools to reflect society’s values – including its prejudices and its shortsightedness – than to transcend them. For example, the comprehensive school revolution was based on ideals of egalitarianism, which in turn rested on what educationalist Professor Brian Simon appropriately called “a new faith in human educability”.

Later on, an equally religious faith in modernity and technology was grafted on, in which everything “old” had to give way to everything new, and virtue was seen to reside in machines. The consensus of the 1960s and 1970s that streaming and selection were bad and should be put off as long as possible was overlaid by the feeling in the 1980s and 90s that humans were mere appendages to technology anyway (awaiting retraining).

Privilege and power

Today, with grading, filtering and selection as the new norm and the post-war trend for reductions in social inequality reversed, the latest “moral purpose” being advanced in England is far from uncontroversial, let alone universal, but rather rests on assumptions about privilege and power.

It involves things like children lining up in orderly queues, standing up when teachers enter rooms and walking down corridors in silence. In the media, it has predictably been characterised as a “boot camp” approach to education. Yet, for its proponents, the loss of liberty on small things paves the way for bigger and more important liberties later.

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw insists that “structure liberates”, while Heath Monk, chief executive of the Future Leaders Trust, repeats today’s message that “enforcing good behaviour…is fundamental to the moral purpose of education”.

This notion that permissiveness is the problem – and not a symptom – is the prevailing orthodoxy. The values foregrounded are obedience, self-control, respect for others, humility. Of course, these are all indeed good things, but they are opposed to other equally desirable ends such as independence, imagination, originality and self-confidence. The trouble is, in ethics, you can’t have your cake and eat it. The principles of renowned moral philosopher Immanuel Kant don’t work in practice, while utilitarianism’s practices are objectionable in principle.

However, ethical ambiguities rarely seem to worry education secretaries. England’s last one, Michael Gove, freely sprinkled his speeches with value-laden terms like “quality” and “fairness” just before leaving – natch – to become the minister for justice. A speech at Policy Exchange in 2014 concluded by saying that all the educational reforms taken under him were “driven by a clear sense of moral purpose”, was guided by what he called three “principles”: autonomy, accountability and teacher quality. Only the first one seems to justify the ethical polish, but since Gove’s autonomy is reserved for institutions and headteachers, it is necessarily at the expense of children and parents.

And for Ofsted chief Wilshaw, too, all that seems to matter is that schools – such as Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, East London, where he was the founding headteacher – run “tight ships” within “a very disciplined environment”.

Schools are inevitably following this moral lead. Michaela Community School in Wembley, north-west London, stated in its application to the government to open as a free school that “pupils will be required to move out of the way of adults, stand at assembly, have a perfect uniform and obey”. The application continues: “Obedience is not a word that we will shy away from as it is this concept that will see our pupils through to having successful lives in the future.”

Freedom of thought

The virtuous shine given to such policies makes them seem more important and a great deal less debatable than if they were mere pedagogical techniques. Yet the “moral purpose” that prevails today is highly problematic.

Of course, everyone wants their children to be equipped to make a success for themselves in later life – but drill and practice may actually serve many children less well than a more creative and imaginative curriculum. And if little can be achieved in an ill-disciplined environment, equally little of value is produced in silent classrooms where the freedom to think has been driven out. Even a well-ordered school of high-achievers may be less of a good thing if that harmony has been achieved by direct or indirect social exclusion.

And in reality, as mentioned earlier, for every positive there is a related and unavoidable negative. All value judgements carry a price. Teaching is a practical matter and grand aspirations make poor guides for practice. At some point, values have to be implemented.

Implementation, in turn, shifts the debate to one that is more about “values education” and how day-to-day teaching activities promote or contradict the aspirations of both the school and the community.

As such, the most seemingly uncontroversial “moral purposes” can be troublesome. Take something like striving for “equality of opportunity”, which runs against some families’ firmly held convictions about boys getting careers and girls getting married. Here teachers, to some extent, must impose society’s values. And schools can waste their time teaching values that are too much at odds with their own daily routines, or the aspirations of the communities that they are part of.

Further evidence of a flaw at the heart of moral purpose in education comes in the example of Summerhill School (one of the most idealistic of educational experiments) – namely, that the stated moral purpose can actually have an opposite outcome to that desired.

The aspiration at Summerhill was to have order and harmony, but achieved organically, via debate and consensus. Unfortunately, as Plato warns in The Republic and William Golding memorably describes in his novel, Lord of the Flies, the positive aspiration for an absence of rules brings with it the danger of degeneration into random cruelties and tyranny.

In her recent account of being a pupil at Summerhill, A Conversation About Happiness: the story of a lost childhood, Mikey Cuddihy recalls just such a Lord of the Flies-like scenario in which a group of boys imposed a dictatorship in an attempt to restore order. This was then followed by a revolution, which was followed in turn by a fascist coup. After this, headteacher A S Neill enforced certain values: reminding his charges of the responsibilities of self-government, and imposing the rule that they “could do anything as long as it didn’t bother anyone else”. The school with no rules had reinstated the golden one.

‘Battlers and bruisers’

The contrast with current policy is stark. For state schools, Wilshaw insists: “We need battlers and bruisers in our schools, who are not prepared to put up with nonsense from children.’’ If this is “values education”, and part of a virtuous moral quest, it is essentially achieving behavioural change out of institutional constraints. Values don’t come into it.

And just as Summerhill students reacted against a lack of repression, students under the new moral purpose will also react. Sooner or later, children leave those bounds, and for some the very rigidity of the school’s teachings will increase the strength of their response.

Of course, the virtues of self-discipline and hard work can be made gentler by promises to help and support those who are struggling. Or more radically, the emphasis can be placed on social, rather than individual, benefits. At Michaela, rather than just having children knocked into shape by “battlers and bruisers”, the school encourages family involvement. Parents and pupils sign a contract at the beginning of the year and parents are encouraged to come in to school and discuss their child’s progress.

This character development theme is reflected in a school day that is longer than most, with extra-curricular activities after hours to broaden children’s horizons and “stretch and challenge”. There is also a carefully thought-out canteen policy under which pupils are supposed to sit cooperatively together at tables and engage in polite conversation – as any teacher will tell you, this doesn’t even happen in staffrooms.

However, at many other schools the instrumentalist ethic is unvarnished. It’s Fordism: a conveyor belt approach in which children arrive at Year 1 and must proceed though standard procedures and stages until Year 11. Diversity is a problem, not something to be celebrated, as children are all required to proceed, with greater or lesser success, through the same curriculum.

Schools are, at root, meritocratic. Continually ranking and dividing people and setting exams implies winners and losers. In contrast, most ethical systems stress helping the weak and advancing the interests of the “many” over the “few”.

What this all boils down to is that instead of students becoming more independent as the educational process unfolds, this “moral purpose” ensures that they remain in a state of high dependency.

And although many schools, like the King Solomon Academy (a new 3-18 school in North London run by the education charity Ark), are full of fine-sounding aspirations such as to “build a community based on justice and a sense of personal responsibility”, the real value message being passed down the chain is the old Protestant work ethic of virtue being reflected in personal wealth and success.

As such, the new moral purpose is not new at all: it is a message that has remained broadly unchanged since the first days of compulsory schooling in Victorian Britain. And it is a message that is out of date.

Martin Cohen has taught at schools and colleges in the UK. He is the author of numerous books including Critical Thinking Skills for Dummies and the editor of The Philosopher journal

The moral message in evangelical texts

The moral purpose approach was magnified in the 19th century by the spread of evangelical texts, including children’s books such as James Janeway’s A Token for Children: being and exact account of the conversion, holy and exemplary lives and joyful deaths of several young children (1771).

Better children’s texts were equally pregnant with moral messages, but they were delivered more subtly. The Grimm brothers wrote in the introduction to their Children’s and Household Tales (1812) that while folk tales were not there to convey lessons, nevertheless: “a moral grows out of them, just as good fruit develops from healthy blossoms without help from man.”

And Charles Dickens, observing the myriad social problems of 19th-century London, also considered stories to be a very powerful tool for conveying moral values, saying: “It would be hard to estimate the amount of gentleness and mercy that has made its way among us through these slight channels.

“Forbearance, courtesy, consideration for the poor and aged, kind treatment of animals, the love of nature, abhorrence of tyranny and brute force – many such good things have been first nourished in the child’s heart by this powerful aid.”

The headteacher’s view: ‘Students decide their own moral code’

Every teacher, school and department in charge of education will share a similar aspiration, which is for their children to learn something effectively. I’m sure that most education professionals feel that this is important, so that children can go on to the next phase of education equipped with necessary skills and knowledge and also to improve their lives.

Regardless of whether you are a Conservative minister or a wacky, alternative educationalist, education practitioners and organisations must believe that this is what they are about.

We each believe that our own way of achieving this is right, of course, otherwise we would be doing it differently; and there will be excellent examples of successes and failures from every opposing side.

My own view is that I want all my children to do really well in all subjects, to love school, be creative, behave themselves, do as they’re told, be independent, show respect, surprise me, line up properly, buck the trend…It’s a cultural and historical mash-up.

But the great thing about children is that they generally work out the rules of the game, including the various different expectations others have of them and what it is they have to do to meet or exceed them.

The moral purpose imposed on them by teachers, schools and governments will swing, pendulum-like, from era to era and school to school, but children will work out their own path, each with their own moral code, forged by their experiences.

Mike Fairclough is headteacher at the TES primary school of the year, West Rise Junior School, Eastbourne

The chaplain’s view: ‘Our purpose is not morals but love’

With more than 4,500 primary schools and 200 secondary schools, the Church of England has a fair bit of experience when it comes to education.

And most schools in the country were originally founded on Christian principles and with a distinctive Christian ethos. Long before most villages and towns had established buildings for schools, the children would gather to be taught in rectories, parsonages and manses up and down the country.

Looking back at the history of some of these establishments, their interpretation of “Christian” differs to what I understand that word to mean. Education then meant obedience, discipline and compliance. A clear moral framework founded on the Bible (including the bit about “spare the rod, spoil the child”) was enforced.

But it seems to me that the bit they were missing in that moral foundation was the overarching message of the Bible and of all faiths: love.

It’s not a popular word these days in education terms, but when I talk to the staff at our church primary, a love of teaching, education and the children is what inspires and drives them.

Love is not a word to find in an inspection framework, government directive or action plan. But it is what I think should be at the heart of our moral framework for education.

I know it sounds like a mandate from a wannabe hippy but I really do think that if we could recapture the essence of love it might revolutionise education. Love for our neighbour, community and the world. Love of the subject, discovery and adventure.

We hear the phrase “moral education” and we think about choosing right from wrong, about dos and don’ts – but these are just the outcomes. The foundation to all that has to be love.

You’ve probably heard this at the last church wedding you went to: “If I have not love, I am like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal, I could have faith to move mountains but if I don’t have love, I am nothing.”

The moral purpose of education is not to churn out compliant consumers but to nurture loving creators.

Rev Kate Bottley is chaplain of North Nottinghamshire College


Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today