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Whose morals are they anyway?

While the great, good and not-so-good fight over the moral high ground to define what values should be inculcated into students, back at the urban ranch children and teachers struggle to make sense of the day.

Let us not believe that family and social distress is limited to the areas of schools making headlines in London, Halifax or Worksop. There will be a number of schools wondering whether the bubble will burst over them next as they face the daily disruption of learning by a significant minority of pupils in the classroom and around the school site.

The introduction of an A-level in critical thinking, laudable as that is, will not reassure those schools; the party political argument (within and between parties) currently raging over whether to promote the traditional family as moral bastion able to uphold a desirable code of values simply misses the point. As Michael Stoten's article (TES, October 25) so vividly illustrated, the vast majority of disruptive children carry a burden of trauma in their lives which deeply affects their capacity to learn. The highly negative effects of parental choice in the city market-place have come home to roost in the schools obliged to educate "rejects" from selective schools or those technically "full".

To require parents of these disruptive children to sign a quasi-legal contract and hope for changed behaviour as a result is to live in cloud cuckoo land.

Who are the parents anyway? The temporary foster parent who is just about at the end of her tether with the girl who has been violently abused by parent and grandparent? The mother who lives in fear of her own child's aggression? The step-father who has tried his best to support his orphaned stepson despite his involvement in crime and is seeking a placement in care? The father in a tug-of-hate with his ex-wife over the children? The parent who does not provide adequately for his children's physical needs? What difference will another piece of paper make in these families in crisis?

In recognition of the reality of existing family patterns, I am convinced that it is the child's entitlement to appropriate parenting, whatever the family configuration, which should occupy prime importance in the debate. And what are the current moral codes being taught or caught? Families in distress trying to keep their children safe increasingly promote self-preservation at whatever cost to others; children who fail to "have a go" at someone who has insulted or offended them come in for parental disapprobation. Families arriving on depressed housing estates will be lobbied by existing householders to get them "on side" against the scapegoat family in the street. Children developing dubious entrepreneurial skills have the approval of their parents because "that's what he'll be doing after school".

In school children hear strong "traditional" messages promoting common absolute values loud and clear (though it would be a foolhardy teacher who promoted married mums and dads as the only possible loving family carers); to imply that teachers and governors are shirking their responsibility to be clear about right and wrong, good and bad, selfishness and altruism is insulting. And who calls in the family mediation service? And who makes the referral for psychiatric assessment or identifies possible child abuse? And who provides emergency clothing and food? The school of course.

Sometimes, too, the moral message is most clearly articulated by children rather than adults - I have not seen much acknowledgement of their concern for the environment or for handicapped and sick children in the current furore. The recognition of crisis is now well-established, surely the period of attempting to attribute blame in the name of analysis of the problem should draw quickly to a close.

There will be no quick fix but I would counsel both Education Secretary Gillian Shephard and her Labour shadow David Blunkett to break into the cycle at a point well in advance of parentschool contracts. In order to inform a ministry for children, multi-agency fora in urban areas which would be quick to identify themselves should meet to identify urgent measures to support family life and schooling as it is now. From pre-school learning visitors to classroom assistants to family therapy to mediation services; the ideas would not be in short supply and should be welcome to those who really care about children.

Pat Collings is the head of Sinfin Community School, Derby.

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