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Way out of the moral muddle

A more structured approach to RE is needed to clarify the current confusion in moral and spiritual development, says Bill Laar. The Plowden Report, the last great review of primary education in this country, makes little direct reference to moral and spiritual education. A generation later the Office for Standards in Education has made it a key part of the inspection process.

Having stated a need, OFSTED thereafter is less explicit, obscuring the distinction between the moral and spiritual and making it difficult to disengage one from the other.

This may be indicative not of uncertainty about the difference between the two, but of a deep unease that for various reasons - the inherently complex nature of spiritual belief, the vital and difficult link between religious and spiritual education, the sensitivities of a multi-religious society, the problems created by government requirements about religious worship - it is not feasible to provide for spiritual development in any true sense.

OFSTED tells inspectors: "Spiritual development is to be judged by how well the school promotes opportunities for pupils to reflect on aspects of their lives and the human condition through, for example, literature, music, art, science, religious education and collective worship, and how well the pupils respond.

"Inspectors should judge the extent to which the arrangements for acts of collective worship promote pupils' spiritual and other development."

OFSTED's guidance is more likely to blur than clarify important distinctions. It fails to distinguish the essential differences between the spiritual and the moral and unwittingly conveys the impression that spiritual development and the processes that nurture it are straightforward matters. It encourages inspectors to validate, as spiritually grounded, outcomes that are worthwhile but not necessarily spiritual.

It does not convey with sufficient conviction the centrality of religious education and experiences to the growth of spiritual awareness, nor explore adequately the nature of collective worship.

Providing for moral development is taxing , especially at a time of radically changing mores and moral ambiguity in public life. But it is an area that many primary schools approach with confidence and manage with distinction.

A deeply rooted tradition holds children at the centre of the business of education, valuing but not indulging, matching deep concern with high expectations.

The primary school is a natural arena for the development of moral sensibility, with children required to live in a community, leading to an understanding of right and wrong, of the importance of justice, and of the need for respect for others and the environment.

The primary curriculum at its best is a critical instrument in moral education. Literature and drama enable children to engage with complex moral issues; the humanities and science initiate reflection on profound aspects and consequences of human behaviour, the creative arts foster appreciation of its finest expression.

It would be tempting to believe that spiritual development is very much of the same order and brought about in an identical fashion. One might draw that conclusion from the OFSTED guidance. Obviously moral and spiritual development are crucially interlinked. Equally, the broad curriculum can nurture in children a sense of delight and curiosity in the richness of creation; wonder at the heroism and inventiveness of humanity; and, as they mature, a capacity to come to terms with the most profound issues of human existence.

All this makes a very strong appeal to the liberal educational spirit. We are talking about the romantic side of education, about the imaginative and creative.

But the problem is that schools could provide for all that and be left with an education that is effective and admirable, but essentially humanistic and not spiritual. It seems unlikely that there can be genuine spiritual development unless children are helped as a matter of right to a systematic understanding of religious beliefs, practices and experiences. It is here that a major difficulty lies, because of the often anguished attitudes of sincere and committed teachers to religious education, the problems that can be caused by evangelising teachers of any faith, the demands created by legislative requirements about religious worship and the sheer burden of providing for appropriate religious education.

Much of what schools do in the course of children's educational experience, and especially in the process of moral education, will bring them to the frontiers of spiritual development. But without a more structured approach to religious education they are unlikely to move beyond the foothills. I believe that OFSTED, wittingly or not, is likely to fudge the issue, and encourage inspectors to articulate bland acceptance of practice that may be educationally valuable but is not spiritually so.

* Bill Laar is a registered inspector.

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