St Andrew's College has just had the pleasure of playing host to Shoji Fujita, professor of education at Rikkyo University in Japan, who was here to learn about the Scottish approach to moral education. Professor Fujita was particularly interested in the distinction made in the 5-14 personal and social development document between personal and social morality. This distinction, which we take for granted, was one that eluded him, since in Japanese society the public and private are not as carefully separated as in Britain.
The moral life, we are told, is a private matter for the individual in his or her relations with others. Public, political life, on the other hand, is a question of planning and producing common economic and social goods. Individual moral decisions may be taken without reference to the surrounding social and economic landscape, and in a language which requires no roots in a more substantial public discourse. Hence schools can have placed upon them the contradictory obligations to foster "good citizens", and to avoid consideration of the broader socio-economic factors which help determine the context for individual decision-making and communal interaction. The result of this contradiction has been the development, especially in England, of a moral education which has little purchase in the real lives of real pupils in the real worlds which shape them.
The influence of these attitudes is felt most keenly in the narrowed conception of the purposes and goals of moral education emerging in certain sections of Britain's political class, a conception which seeks to persuade us that moral education is based purely on an ethics of personal obligation operating within a restricted sphere of hierarchical relationships and deference to authority.
Teachers, from this viewpoint, are reduced to the agents of an anachronistic social conformity which sits ill with the equally clamorous public claims that education must produce young men and women adapted to a culture of permanent change, and which is delivered in a register that has no resonance with the experience or the language of many of the pupils in our schools. Such a restricted understanding of morality is doomed to failure from the start, because it fails to acknowledge the ambiguity of contemporary individual moral experience, the complexity of the socio-economic backdrop and the patterns of their interrelationships.
An alternative analysis of the challenge facing those seeking to make progress in moral education might argue that our fundamental task is actually to recognise and make use of the ambiguity of personal moral experience and social relations in ways that enable young people to engage constructively with a world of competing values and difficult moral choices. Acknowledging that language gives form and meaning to the connection between the individual and social worlds leads inevitably to the recognition that it is to the language of authentic moral dialogue between teacher and pupil that we must look to provide a solid underpinning for truly moral behaviour in our society.
Establishing authenticity in the exchanges between teacher and pupil has proved to be the most elusive and, at the same time, the most critical feature of successful moral education. Many of the panic responses arising out of the current crisis seem doomed to failure precisely because they fail to attend to these central features of complexity, ambiguity and authenticity in the moral conversation.
Most teachers know what it is like to reach out to pupils whose views preclude their participation in a moral dialogue. At its most obvious this is characterised by the lesson conducted on respect for the other person with children who may experience only disrespect in their communities. It is for this reason that many of the initiatives recommended recently to the Department for Education and Employment will founder: they seek simple answers to complex realities, and ask for "good citizenship" from those whose moral vocabulary is limited by circumstance and alienation.
The Values Education Project at St Andrew's College has developed a practical programme of classroom strategies which give precedence to the shaping of a shared language for moral dialogue in the classroom. Our experience has underlined the need to have a clear appreciation of the human person at the heart of values education. Central to this approach is the belief that the quality of the individual's moral life is significantly determined by their ability to identify, name and give voice to their emotional life, born out of pain and humiliation or out of happiness and self worth.
One of the areas in which both teachers and pupils find greatest difficulty is having a genuine conversation about what it is to be human. Frequently there is an unspoken collusion between teacher and pupil which ensures that the moral debate demonstrates form but no substance; there is, we may say, a "curriculum gap" into which fall all the real issues.
During the early work of our project we began to see this gap clearly and developed school based materials to bridge it, but met with some opposition from those who genuinely felt that activities which opened up pupils' real lives might lead to a loss of discipline and subsequent long-term disruption. In response we reshaped some of our materials so that they could continue to be used to address the gap but using a language with which teachers felt more comfortable.
While much of this material is effective, it fails really to touch those who enter the system alienated and marginalised, precisely because it does not speak to their experience. One approach which has its origins in the mists of time but which, in recent years, has been increasingly neglected as a result of curriculum change is the use of poetry and story. Poetry returns to the hearer a vocabulary to enable them to begin the process of self-reflection, in a language which captures the imagination through exposing the pupil to passion, anguish, anger, hatred, fear and betrayal as well as love, joy, relief and hope.
It is through the irony of A A Milne that we address the six-year-old; through the quiet grief of an Owen the early adolescent; and through the acute observation of a Heaney we provide recognition of life's ambiguity to the young adult. It is not enough to "be real" without providing our pupils with a language to describe and shape their world, the more effectively to live in it. This is not some search for an elysian field of high culture but a recognition that the poet exposes the moral ambiguity of our times and in so doing provides us with the necessary tools to develop our moral choices.
Jim Conroy is director of religious education and pastoral care at St Andrew's College, and chairperson of the Values Education Project directorate, supported by the Gordon Cook Foundation. Bob Davis is director of in-service education at St Andrew's College, and a member of the Values Education Project directorate.