LEADING ARTICLE: Moral tales in the schoolroom

Dr Nick Tate is worried about the nation's morality, and in particular about how schools teach children about moral, spiritual and ethical matters. Good. Dr Tate is the chief school curriculum adviser to the Government, and it is his job to be concerned. And in a society which seems so fluid, and occasionally even dangerous, it seems more important than ever that schools should give young people a good grounding. Dr Tate's invitation to us all to participate in constructing a list of values for schools to teach is thus welcome.

Before taking up his invitation, however, it is necessary to point out some of the flaws in his own analysis. First, there are some holes in his critique of modern teaching. Most parents know that the majority of schools already place significant emphasis on moral behaviour and citizenship. Nor is it at all clear why the current teaching of "self-esteem" should be in conflict (as he suggests it is) with the transmission of "traditional moral values".

Second, the suggestion that society is somehow less moral today than once it was arises from a very narrow perception. It is certainly true that most people (including young people) are far less deferential to the supposed immutability of old black and white precepts; they prefer to formulate more individual moral codes for themselves. Anyone who doubts that should watch a teen soap or pick up a youth magazine, and see how heavily they concentrate on moral issues: should I sleep with him? how should I treat my friends?

It is true, however, that children need adult guidance on developing their own moral understanding, and that schools are having a tough time deciding how to lead. It must indeed be hard to talk about the drawbacks of single parenting or the responsibilities of fatherhood to a class full of children who never see their dads. For such children, the teaching of "self-esteem" may have a great value. But the report that trainee teachers are so confused about sexism and racism that they are unwilling to teach any values at all is worrying. And, as Dr Tate says, boorish behaviour by parents, or irresponsible reactions towards the disciplining of their children, undermine teachers' efforts.

But the moral climate in schools is not going to be improved by a "return" to traditional moral values; nor is it necessarily going to improve children's ethical outlook. Moral absolutism will do little more than discredit its teachers in the minds of young people far too sophisticated to swallow simplifications of subjects such as sexuality and marriage. The era of children chanting their catechisms and commandments by rote is lost for ever, and should not be lamented.

All we really need is for teachers and parents to import, by word and by example, lessons in good citizenship that emphasise the responsibility we each bear for one another (from not littering to blood donation). Children readily understand the ancient core dictum of all civilised societies - do as you would be done by. But there are times when we might all go back to school for that one.