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What Shall We Tell The Children?

An interview with National Curriculum Council Chairman David Pascall.

The National Curriculum Council is the body that decides what should be taught in state schools in England. Amid talk of a moral crisis in schools, it recently published a discussion document dealing with spiritual and moral education. The document starts by describing what it means by spiritual development and moral development, then goes on to suggest how schools should be promoting such development in their pupils. In its final section, the document outlines briefly how the progress of schools in these areas will be inspected and assessed.

The document immediately caused great controversy. It was welcomed in some quarters, but many teachers accused the document of being too vague or else of stating the obvious. Philosophy Now interviewed the document’s author, NCC Chairman David Pascall, on his very last day in office.

PN: In your discussion paper, the description of ‘spiritual values’ reads mostly like a definition of philosophy. You say for instance that “it has to do with the universal search for individual identity, with our responses to challenging experiences such as death, suffering, beauty and encounters with good and evil. It is to do with the search for meaning and purpose in life and for values by which to live.” Did you have philosophy in mind when you wrote it?

DP: Not with a capital P. When I became chairman of the NCC just under two years ago there was a lot of concern about moral standards in society. Both the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Hume had made speeches which implied that education was not doing enough in these areas. We have the responsibility to introduce the National Curriculum, which is a series of ten subjects. But the Education Reform Act of 1988 starts off by saying that the purpose of the National Curriculum itself is to provide for the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils and of society. So we went back to the Act and began to ask the basic questions; what does it mean by spiritual, moral and cultural? I developed these themes in a series of speeches so that people could understand the changes we were making; why we were putting great artists back into the art and music curricula, why we’ve now rewritten the English curriculum.

PN: The document says that “schools should be expected to uphold those values which contain moral absolutes.” What precisely are the moral absolutes you have in mind here, and in what sense do you regard them as ‘absolutes’?

DP: What we’re saying is there are some simple truths which schools cannot abdicate. The first of these is that there is a difference between right and wrong. That is an absolute. And it is part of education to ensure that children know the difference between right and wrong. We’re also saying there is a series of moral absolutes which sets out a basic framework of how we live in civilised society. And these are unexceptional things. We’ve said that some of those moral absolutes are telling the truth, keeping promises, respecting the rights and property of others, acting considerately, helping those less fortunate, taking personal responsibility and self discipline. Too often there has been the attitude in the 70s and 80s that these things are a matter of opinion; that we shouldn’t hinder the child’s selfexpression. I’m saying that’s not good enough.

PN: Okay then, imagine it’s not me sitting here but a 15 year old joy-rider with an abysmal home background. What would you say to him to convince him that he should ‘stick to the rules’?

DP: I’ll try not to duck it; these are very difficult issues, and they’re not solved overnight. Of course if pupils are already well advanced down that road it’s much more difficult to introduce a positive value system if they’ve developed a different value system. One of the points I’ve been making is that education isn’t value-free; these pupils are developing some sort of value system, even if it’s one by default, right the way through. What I’m trying to stress is teachers’ responsibilities in this area. Too many teachers are abdicating responsibility and feeling that these things are not for them, that they’re supposed to be teaching lessons and these moral issues are for society or for the parents to sort out. What we’re saying is no, you have got a key responsibility. They’ve got to discuss as a staffroom, they’ve got to discuss with governors, they’ve got to discuss with parents, asking “what are we trying to do at school? What are the issues that are going to be discussed in class and how are we going to develop a line? What is our response going to be to questions about AIDS, for instance?”

PN: Do you think there will be any attempt by the Government in the future to lay down a ‘party line’ on teaching concerning moral issues such as abortion, animal rights, homosexuality etc.?

DP: It should not be for governments to legislate about morals and into some of these sensitive areas. But it is important that the strength of the family should be emphasised through school life. There is no doubt in my mind that children are better served by being brought up in heterosexual relationships with a mother and father. That is the strongest bond that would give us the sort of society that I think the majority of people in this country would want. I would never believe that a government would get elected in this democracy that did not support some of the things that we’re talking about.

PN: In view of your concern for instilling an intelligent understanding of moral values, do you think moral philosophy should be taught as a separate subject to older pupils?

DP: I believe that issues of spiritual and moral development should be brought out in the teaching of all the subjects on the curriculum, as I don’t believe that these issues should come to be seen as something which is dealt with just on Thursday afternoons or whenever Religious Education classes are held. However, I’ve also said that the National Curriculum is too crowded. Therefore the framework does not have the flexibility to allow the development of other areas. We need to cut back the statutory requirements of the National Curriculum to about 70% of the curriculum. That would then allow greater scope for different options. I think it would be perfectly acceptable then for certain schools to offer the opportunity for philosophy, and moral philosophy in particular, for 14 or 16 years olds should they wish to do so. But we’ve first of all got to make sure that there’s a bit more space in the curriculum. There are plenty of other things that could be taught as well, and that’s where the choice will come in for individual schools.

PN : What about sending teachers away to seminars conducted by academic philosophers, where they could examine the sort of issues raised in the discussion paper, so that they could deal with these issues in a more informed way in schools?

DP : That’s a vaild suggestion, but let me make a more general point. These are fundamental underpinnings of education. Every teacher needs to be able to address these issues. It’s just not good enough for certain teachers to say “I’m not competent in these areas.” They have to be just as competent to handle the spiritual and moral issues as they are to handle maths and English and science and technology and all the rest of it. Too many teachers are not competent to teach what we are now requiring to give our children a satisfactory education, and that’s why we must reform teacher training. They’ve got to be able to teach the National Curriculum, they’ve got to be able to handle a classroom, but they’ve also got to understand the spiritual and moral and cultural dimensions. Those things should form part of teacher training.

PN : So you’re actually asking for a reform of the way teachers are taught?

DP: Yes, of course I am. The Government should have started with those reforms before they started the National Curriculum; that’s one of the problems we have at the moment. The English order we published last week; a lot of English teachers will be incapable of teaching that order. That’s not a reason for diluting the order, because our children deserve a quality education, but those teachers are going to have to be trained, and we have the same problem; too many teachers will throw their hands up in horror and say, spiritual and moral dimensions, philosophy, what are these issues?

PN: Could I pick you up on that point about the new literature order? You’re specifying that schools must teach particular books but you are also saying, in this discussion document, that moral development must be encouraged through teaching in all areas of the curriculum, including English literature. Can we then infer that the Government’s views on moral and spiritual development are bound to influence the choice of books to be taught? What types of literature would be regarded as morally unacceptable by the NCC? For example, Romeo and Juliet concerns under-age sex…

DP: The way you put it makes it sound rather dangerous. The literature that we specify for primary schools should be suitable in terms of spiritual and moral development. What we don’t want are books that have unacceptable language, swear words, incorrect grammar, and we don’t want books implying that some of the things we’ve talked about are matters of opinion, that immoral and irresponsible behaviour is to be condoned, so we’re making a judgement about that sort of literature. Now when you get into secondary education, of course, pupils are beginning to build their own value systems, and they should be introduced to the great literature, not just of our own cultural heritage but of other cultures and traditions too, and they must begin to make their own opinions. People will say to me “don’t you realise that some great literature is subversive, that when they were written some of Shakespeare’s plays were seen as highly radical?” Of course I realise, but you’ve got to ask, why has this great literature lasted? Why does it give us the insights into society and those glimpses of truth that help develop our own humanity? You mention Romeo and Juliet, well I went to Macbeth on Friday, and there’s enough in Macbeth for you to worry about young children being exposed to it. But as they get into secondary school we certainly want children to explore these issues and develop their critical faculties. What we’re putting in the statutory order is literature that is well written, material that provokes these moral debates in a sensible manner and not subversive material that’s badly written and is trying to condition society against some of the things that we’ve said are important.

PN : Then are there books that the Government would say were well written, great literature and just right for the list, except that they were propagating values that were contrary to the values being put forward in the rest of the syllabus and therefore it wouldn’t choose them?

DP : No. Firstly, it’s not the Government – the NCC is an independent body. Secondly there is an issue of the maturity of the children, because for young children it is important that they develop an idea of the difference between right and wrong. But for secondary schools and if you’re talking about great literature, or great art, then of course not. I don’t just want a safe curriculum. We want children to participate and understand and discuss, because some of those books were radical when they were written. Indeed quite a lot of them are still radical when they’re read and understood, but that’s the nature of a healthy society.

PN: So Romeo and Juliet would be okay, D.H.Lawrence would be okay?

DP: Yes. D.H.Lawrence is okay for children at the right level of maturity.

PN: In the final section of the discussion paper you mention that inspectors will visit schools periodically to assess the state of spiritual and moral development of the pupils. How will such inspectors be chosen? Isn’t there a danger of getting people who will ride their own moral hobby-horses?

DP: It is very unfortunate that the whole educational debate gets preoccupied with assessment. There is this feeling that if it moves you must measure it. This is not an area where we want rigid assessment. We shall have a new inspection framework and every four years inspectors will see how a school is operating, and one of the things the inspectors will look at is the spiritual and moral dimension in that school. But we want them to do it sensitively and imaginatively, because I wouldn’t want people to feel that the police state is following up behind to check whether this is happening.

Spiritual and Moral Development – A Discussion Paper National Curriculum Council, April 1993.
Copies available from:
N.C.C., Albion Wharf, 25 Skeldergate, York YO1 2XL

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