Valuing the victims

Conflict in Iraq has brought a new edge to values education that may make its presence felt in a general election, says John Cairney

According to its website, two of the aims of the Values Education Council are to promote dialogue and awareness of values and their application in education and society and support those engaged in values education. But recent political developments at a national and global level would suggest that those schools which include values education in the curriculum face a major challenge in how they promote the former of these aims with subsequent implications for the latter.

The debates I have heard on values education in the past appear to indicate that the approach is to conduct discussion in the abstract. Yes, "citizenship" is a good thing, as are respect for others, being responsible and caring, and learning how to live in a pluralist society. All are "good things" intended to promote positive lifelong attitudes in young people.

It has now become clear, at least in my estimation, that a major part of what might be called the thinking population of the country, which surely includes the country's educators, believes that the Prime Minister misled Parliament and the electorate or, even worse, lied, in order to get his own way over a war which caused the death of thousands.

The values agenda has therefore been irredeemably transformed from the comparatively opaque and abstract into the harsh light of a cruel reality.

The Government has inadvertently created ideal, if tragic, "laboratory conditions" in which issues of values and personal and collective morality can be debated in the context of actual rather than virtual outcomes.

"Values", after all, have been at the very heart of this Government's agenda. In a recent newspaper article, Stephen Byers, former Transport Secretary and very much a Blair loyalist, evoked "Labour values" in his plea for the Government to renew its drive to modernise, engage the electorate and produce "lasting change".

So neither he nor any other Government supporter can object if the community in general, and the education community in particular, experience a sense of bewilderment at being expected to consider and discuss values in the context of continued and increasingly robust questioning of the trustworthiness, the credibility and even the morality of the head of government.

I, for one, would have great difficulty in ignoring what I consider to be one of the starkest examples of misrepresentation and misinformation ever carried out by a leader of this country in order to justify his case for initiating a war many consider to be illegal. I could not therefore isolate it from any values education lesson.

The fact that I am in the illustrious company of many international jurists in holding such views, gratifying though it may be, would be of little assistance when confronted with an inquisitive class of fifth or sixth-years with whom I was expected to promote dialogue and not brainwash.

Hence my highlighting the second of the aims of the Values Education Council -to support those engaged in values education.

One of the Scottish members of the Values Education Council said recently that he would be "surprised" if teachers are not addressing the ethical issues surrounding the decision to go to war in Iraq, an issue which, he claimed, raised the more general issue of how we live our lives. "Human beings make mistakes all the time," he said, "but they can be rectified."

In what might be regarded as a plea to senior politicians, he added: "An example should be set where mistakes have been made. People should not dissemble but should do something to redress the balance."

This last statement exemplifies the chasm between the abstractness of much that goes under the heading of values education and the realpolitik of governance. But the Government cannot have it both ways. It cannot argue for the promotion of positive ethics and values as part of its "education, education, education" agenda and dismiss these values when expedient. Or maybe ministers think they can and are trying to do so.

If so, where does that leave our idealistic youngsters as they try to make sense of a world in which such moral contradictions don't end when the period bell rings at the close of a classroom discussion but impact, on the lives of people, often resulting in death?

Two of the pre-election concepts favoured by the Prime Minister are "choice" and "trust", so he cannot complain if young people, many of whom will vote for the first time in a possible general election this year, choose not to trust him and his Government.

John Cairney is a former teacher.

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