Beyond good and evil

Could schools deliver a national moral curriculum? Judith Judd examines the limits to teaching ethics
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The Independent Online
Adam and Eve, good and evil, right and wrong are back in fashion. Jesting Pilate's doubts about truth are out. Let us judge as well as understand, punish as well as praise, discipline as well as tolerate.

That was the flavour of remarks yesterday from Dr Nick Tate, the Government's chief curriculum adviser, who complained loudly that morality had become no more than a matter of taste; a moral choice was becoming indistinguishable from choosing a new sofa. There should be a national moral code for schools which should teach pupils more clearly about the difference between right and wrong. He deplored "politically correct" young teachers who are so afraid of hurting their pupils' self-esteem that they cannot get off the moral fence.

Dr Tate was careful to castigate society as well as schools for young people's belief that morality is merely a question of taste. Yet his general message is clear enough. Teachers could do better in inculcating right and wrong. He is not alone in his rallying call for a return to tradition. His drift is in tune with the Conservatives' attempt to take the moral high ground, which foundered so disastrously in John Major's back to basics campaign.

During the past decade, the right in this country has allied itself with traditional Christianity and called for a return to old-fashioned morality. Like the radical right in the United States, it believes schools are central to change. This concern with schools' role in teaching morals is relatively recent. Spiritual and moral education was first made a legal requirement in the 1988 Education Reform Act, which said the curriculum should prepare "the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at school and in society". Later, ministers decreed that schools' moral and spiritual standards should be officially inspected.

Yet the notion that schools are failing to teach morality is an odd one. Dr Tate's analysis is flawed in several respects.

First, as he points out, schools are "by and large, very moral places". How could it be otherwise? Few teachers punishing a playground bully would fail to pronounce on violence. Few teachers of a class where children's pens keep mysteriously disappearing would not deplore stealing. From the age of three or four, teachers have to help children to take turns and share with others or it would not be possible to teach them at all.

There may be, as Dr Tate suggests, a few trainee teachers who are nervous about making moral pronouncements, but it is actions, not words, that count. And, once teachers are in schools, moral actions are an unavoidable part of their daily life.

These teachers, Dr Tate suggests, are so intimidated by the prevailing culture which opposes the imposition of racial, class or gender values on pupils that they are frightened to teach the difference between right and wrong. The comment will play well with Conservatives and traditionalists who castigated Labour councils for their anti-sexist and anti-racist initiatives. But surely both sexual and racial discrimination would appear on Dr Tate's list of wrongs.

That highlights a further difficulty for Dr Tate's proposed national moral code, which he envisages would be drawn up by employers, teachers, trade unionists, academics. That is: there would probably be little chance of agreeing on anything beyond the obvious. His national forum would simply end up reinventing the Ten Commandments with a dash of New Testament "love thy neighbour" thrown in. After that, it would be in difficulties. Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, called for a modern Ten Commandments. But how much of what is modern could be included? Stealing and killing are wrong but what about homosexuality and single-parent families, abortion, divorce, adultery, consuming soft drugs, television sex and violence.

Even Dr Tate's contention that teachers are concentrating too much on self-esteem in personal and social education lessons and too little on moral error will be challenged by those who believe that lack of self- esteem, not original sin, is at the root of much wrong-doing in society.

However, even if a national moral code could be drawn up, it would make little sense to ask teachers to implement it.

International studies show that one of the reasons why Britain lags behind other countries academically is that our schools have too many goals. They are supposed to teach children about God, sex, how not to get Aids, not to get fat, not to take drugs, to be good citizens. By contrast, teachers in France believe their job is to teach the curriculum. Professor David Reynolds of Newcastle University, a contributor to the International School Effectiveness Project, points out that in Taiwan, schools have only two goals, academic achievement and good citizenship. The latter is achieved through practical measures, such as school councils.

The last thing schools in this country need is yet another list of things they must do, let alone an insistence that morality should be taught "across the curriculum" in all subjects. The real change in the way schools deal with moral issues is the result of a decline in the importance of religion and churchgoing, a reflection, as Dr Tate acknowledges, of the values in society. Christianity no longer underpins the values of education. It is no good trying to base morality in school on Christianity in a society where most children are of no faith and the rest belong to a variety of others. There are now more Muslims than Methodists in Britain. Most teachers are not Christians and they are not prepared to stand up in class and say that Christianity is right.

Schools may lack the clear moral framework that Dr Tate and Sir Ron lament, but there have been gains as well as losses. Schoolchildren were once told they would burn in hell if they did not attend Sunday school. They were often beaten for hitting each other. Children may have done what they were told more often, but they were less well equipped to challenge adult follies, to think for themselves.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, was cautious in her response to Dr Tate. Schools had an important role to play in teaching pupils the difference between right and wrong, she said, but it was the attitude of parents that was of paramount importance.

She is right. Children spend most of their time at home and their role models are their parents. Their ideas of right and wrong are formed before they arrive at school. To impose a new set of duties on over-stretched schools to attempt to improve the nation's morals would be an unnecessary distraction.

Teachers cannot be expected to carry out such a crusade. Indeed, they lack the authority and confidence they once had. That is the fault of society in general and politicians in particular, rather than of the profession. A government that has spent so much time denigrating teachers is in a poor position to call on them to be the nation's moral leaders.

The Traditionalist

NAME: GEORGE BATES

AGE: 53

TRAINING: KING EDWARD VI GRAMMAR SCHOOL, STOMPGROVE

ORIEL COLLEGE, OXFORD

SPORT: RUGBY UNION (STRICTLY AMATEUR)

CAR: BRITISH-MADE - USUALLY ROVER

FAVOURITE MUSIC: ELGAR

RELIGION: C of E

The Trendy

NAME: SARAH JOHNSON

AGE: 26

TRAINING: THE VINE COMPREHENSIVE,

BASINGSTOKE

AMBRIDGE INSTITUTE OF EDUCATION

SPORT: ROCK-CLIMBING

CYCLE: TREK MOUNTAIN BIKE

FAVOURITE MUSIC: PULP

RELIGION: STRICTLY NEW AGE

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