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Tightening up the line on morality

Susan Young reports on the moves to give moral and spiritual values a central place in the curriculum. Citizenship classes and the teaching of thinking skills to teachers and pupils could be the best way to promote moral and spiritual values in schools, according to a key Government advisor.

The initiative earlier this year by the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority to find ways in which teachers could best tackle the tricky subject of morality in what many regard as an increasingly amoral society has led so far to a much-reported speech by chief executive Dr Nick Tate, the setting-up of 12 discussion groups and a debate initiated in the House of Lords last Friday by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The groups - which include specialist panels of teachers, heads, business people, journalists and representatives of different religious groups - meet for the last time this month before reporting back to SCAA. Early findings suggest that they are unconvinced by the efficacy of cross-curricular teaching on its own and may recommend that the authority should consider dedicated citizenship classes in which moral issues could be debated.

"There is a very clear place for an identifiable slot on the timetable which helps to deal with some of these issues - citizenship, personal and social development, and also the development in young people of critical thinking skills," said Dr Tate, admitting that some groups were "suspicious" of citizenship education.

After SCAA considers the exercise this autumn, recommendations are likely to go to the Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard and Dr Tate hopes for statutory guidelines introducing such subjects into the curriculum.

Pilot projects would smooth the way towards a full introduction of compulsory citizenship classes, for perhaps an hour a week, when the curriculum is next revised at the turn of the century.

He points out that Britain is one of a few countries where citizenship is not already an important part of the curriculum, and that includes the ultra-competitive Pacific Rim economies. In Malaysia, citizenship includes lessons about the country's different cultural traditions. "You hear so much about teaching maths in Taiwan, but not so much about these more subtle but important things."

Dr Tate is clearly pleased by the praise heaped by the Archbishop of Canterbury upon SCAA's moral values initiative - and private messages of support from Lambeth Palace - but keen to emphasise that the agendas differ in that one is explicitly Christian and the other is not. One point of SCAA's focus groups is to arrive at core values which would be agreed by a majority of citizens of whatever religion or lack of it.

The intention is to provide a series of moral absolutes: things which are wrong because they are, rather than because of their consequences. "The public response to Dunblane was a clear example of that: what happened was wrong, without any argument. That is how it always has been, and it was reassuring to some people. The focus groups are trying to identify things we can all agree, moral principles to do with family groupings, the greater community, to do with the environment, honesty and truth and respect and forces such as restraint and self-discipline. All the very traditional things. At the end of the day they can't come up with anything very special or original or new. All the thinking about this was done about two thousand years ago by Plato and Aristotle, " said Dr Tate.

The intention then is to put this information into a context which would be useful for teachers, heads and governors. "There's no point writing to schools saying these are your values, please apply them," he joked. Most schools were already very moral places - they had to be in order to function - but more help was needed in some areas.

He sympathises with schools who feel they are being blamed for the ills of society, but he argues that they are the one place where society believes a real difference can be made.

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