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'Who am I at my best?'

Neil Hawkes and Frances Farrer open their three-part series on research into values education

The first thing that strikes you in a values education school is the calm and the sense of purpose. Manners are good and there is a feeling of community. Teachers enjoy this approach for the same reasons pupils do: clear guidelines and constant reiteration of what is best about every member of the school.

This result is achieved by allowing the positive to be woven into the whole fabric of the school day. It creates a sense of unity and security.

The method was pioneered in Oxfordshire and has been widely adopted, particularly by schools in the south of England. Now nine of them have been studied for a report by the Department for Education and Skills' innovation unit and the National Primary Trust.

How it works looks simple: schools decide on a list of positive values, then put them into practice for a month at a time. The concepts might include respect, co-operation and trust. Neil Hawkes, developed the method with his staff when head at West Kidlington school in Oxfordshire. He says the key is to give the adult community, including parents and governors, time to ask themselves what qualities they want to nurture in the children.

"It's vital to identify your own values, but when we do this we often come up with substantially the same list."

The approach appeals to all types of school. At Blake CofE school at Cogges, near Witney, head Marilyn Trigg says the vicar is enthusiastic about bringing this type of values education into the Christian ethos.

John Hulett of the non-denominational Barley Hill school in Thame sees "a framework for discussion to deal with tricky questions humanistically".

The ideas are explained in assemblies, then carried through into lessons, playground and dining room. Discretionary slots in the timetable may be used for discussion of moral questions. As concepts such as co-operation and respect form part of the everyday language, even the very young catch on quickly.

The guiding principle of behaviour becomes a self-questioning, and the question is, "Who am I when I am the best I can be?" And to the next question, "Who am I when I like myself?" the answer turns out to be the same. Such clarity is especially valuable for those whose lives otherwise lack structure.

Karen Foster, head of Faringdon school in Oxfordshire, says: "We can pin life questions and attitudes to a broad theme. It's a good way of getting children to reflect, of giving them an awareness of their own impact on the world."

Neil Hawkes is a senior adviser in Oxfordshire; Frances Farrer is a journalist. For a copy of the Innovation UnitNPT report email week: Why schools took up the idea

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