Who's to say what's right and wrong?: John Patten wants morality back in the school curriculum, but is this practical in an age of diverse values? Jane French canvasses opinion

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Ministers and their advisers are unashamedly urging schools to provide children with a moral framework for their lives. Few would question their motives but how practicable is it to conduct such a crusade?

Some teachers, in a world of ambivalent values and uncertain faith, feel uncomfortable with this role. They say that social values and parental beliefs are now so diverse that it is difficult, if not impossible, for schools to promote a universally acceptable ethic. Others, such as Sir Rhodes Boyson, a former inner-city comprehensive head, argue that schools are simply shying away from their responsibility (see below).

Education has always been partly about how we encourage young people to become sociable, co-operative human beings. In its early days, state education was quite openly concerned with civilising, and through civilising, controlling the populace. The rapid development of industrial towns alarmed the upper classes, who saw the spectre of rebellion in the masses of slum dwellers.

So, while they struggled to master the three Rs, the children who attended the forerunners of our county and church schools were also taught to respect authority. Bible stories, moral fables and religious doctrine featured prominently in lessons. God was Love, as so many 19th-century samplers remind us, but He was also presented as all-seeing, all-knowing and liable to vent His wrath on wrong-doers in this world or the next. Children were imbued with a fear of God and a sense of guilt for their sins. The threat of divine vengeance had its secular parallels: a recurrent theme in the popular stories of Enid Blyton, for example, is that of ever-watchful fairy folk or disgruntled toys meting out tit-for-tat punishments to naughty children.

Neither the threatening aspect of God, nor the Blyton approach, finds much favour in schools or homes today. We like to think we have grown out of the need to intimidate our young. The accepted way to teach children to behave sociably now is to appeal to their sense of reason or justice or community pride.

But is this gentler approach effective in socialising children who come from homes where self-discipline, care and compassion are not valued? Earlier this week the Government disclosed that more than 3,000 children were permanently expelled from their schools last year, mostly for repeated refusal to obey school rules or abusing teachers, but sometimes for assaulting teachers or bullying other pupils.

Vandalism, juvenile car theft and burglary are seen by many as a consequence of moral malaise, as much as the result of economic deprivation. Educationists working with children who have behaviour problems, such as Masud Hoghughi below, report that increasing numbers of young people seem to have virtually no attachment to normal social standards.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, has no doubt that children are being inadequately prepared for life. In a combative article in the Spectator soon after taking his post, and in a robust but more conciliatory vein in the Tablet recently, Mr Patten bemoaned society's 'dwindling belief in redemption and damnation' and the accompanying loss of fear which, he argued, has had a 'profound effect on personal morality - especially on criminality'.

Calling on schools to act as 'surrogate parents', he said some parents were dodging their moral responsibilities to their children. He challenged schools to give pupils 'a clear and consistent set of values and attitudes'. Mr Patten, a Roman Catholic, did not reserve his scorn for those without faith: he attacked spiritually uncertain churchmen who were 'dripping

in self-doubt', and said he would prefer to be led into the

moral jungle by a hard-headed humanist.

David Pascall, chairman of the National Curriculum Council, has also registered his concern. In a series of speeches this year he has sought to stimulate public debate about the moral and spiritual underpinnings of the Education Reform Act 1988. His approach is pragmatic and co-operative - recognising, for example, that 'it would be too limiting if moral values were developed only within religious education'.

He argues that, although moral issues are difficult and controversial, schools cannot abdicate their responsibilities: 'Governors and teachers have to face up to 'What does this school stand for? What's our approach? And how can we ensure that parents understand what the school stands for?' ' While he accepts that young people will always challenge authority, he unequivocally insists that 'whether things are right or wrong isn't a matter of opinion'.

'There need to be boundaries - but children have to understand why those boundaries are there, why society has developed the laws and norms and rights that it has,' he says.

Historians might take a different perspective, however, and argue that society has not become less orderly and peacable, that there have always been areas where gangs of young thugs have flourished. If they are right, Mr Patten and Mr Pascall may simply be a part of one of society's periodic moral panics over an issue that never really goes away.

The wide range of views expressed on this page confirm, however, that a school, like any community, has to strive for and hang on to its own ideals of sociable, communal living. Schools, in the words of David Pascall, 'remain our best chance that we will have a society we all actually want'. The problem is how schools achieve that laudable aim.

(Photograph omitted)