September 15, 2007

“I’m Bart Simpson’s father and I’m sick of you teaching my son your time-tested values.”

Homer Simpson attempting to remove Bart from Catholic School

There are three things which remind people that English education might to some degree involving the promotion of moral, philosophical or religious values. They are as follows:

  1. There is a legal requirement in schools for a daily act of Christian worship. This, of course, doesn’t actually happen but no politicians dares repeal the laws because it would involve explicitly discussing what values our school system promotes now that it has long since abandoned anything resembling the ethics of any major religion.
  2. There is a powerful body of opinion that wishes to wipe out Faith Schools. This is a coalition of liberal opinion made up of the hard(ish) left who believe all good schools should be destroyed and militant atheists who believe that the purpose of the state school system is to bring children up with values other than those of their parents.
  3. Every so often a politician wants to say something vague about their own values (for instance they may wish to indicate their patriotism, their tolerance or their civic-mindedness). When they realise that they have no policies actually based on those values, the obvious solution is simply to propose as a policy that schools teach those values. This, historically, seems to be how much of the curriculum for PSHE has developed.

Although discussion of all three of these topics is quite common there is a general reluctance to discuss which values are currently being taught in ordinary comprehensive schools. Such a discussion would involve admitting that secondary schools are teaching, through their practice, that rules can be ignored, learning is unimportant and that life is a war of all against all.

Besides the lessons learnt from the daily experience there is deliberate teaching of values in assembly. This is the one part of the timetable where children are directly exposed to the moral wisdom of the school’s senior management. It would be nice to think that the prospect of addressing an audience of hundreds of adolescents might encourage school leaders to promote good character, the pursuit of knowledge and personal responsibility. In reality the following moral insights are repeatedly taught over and over again:

  1. Victimhood is heroic. In another era British school-children might have been told of those who have shaped British history and culture in order to provide examples of human excellence. Now, all heroes must be victims. Anne Frank was a hero for being a victim of the Nazis. Helen Keller was a hero for being a victim of illness and disability. If any great historical figures (for instance Martin Luther King, Gandhi or even Jesus) are mentioned it is in the context of having been victims of injustice as much as for their achievements. Great women of history have a chance of being acclaimed if a case can be made that as women they are inherently victims of a patriarchal society. So for instance we may hear about the accomplishments of Florence Nightingale. However, she is always in danger of being overshadowed by one of her contemporaries, the nurse and herbalist Mary Seacole, by virtue of her double victimhood. Not only was Mary Seacole a woman but also she wasn’t white.
  2. “Racism” and “Bullying” are wrong. This would, of course, be a very useful message if the nature of bullying and racism were actually identified. With regard to race some students might get some idea that joining the Nazi party or the Ku Klux Klan would have been wrong, and that some words should never be used. They are unlikely to be told that there is anything wrong with regarding all Asian students as foreigners, socialising in racially segregated groups, repeatedly getting their parents to complain about non-white teachers having “accents that can’t be understood” or routinely asking black teachers (including black African teachers) if they smoke ganja. Bullying is likely to be illustrated with heart-rending stories about victims who have taken their own lives. There might be a suggestion that name-calling or repeated assaults are wrong. It is unlikely to be suggested that stopping other pupils from learning, treating others as second-class, intimidating members of staff, or random assaults are forms of bullying.
  3. You should show “respect”. Again the examples undermine the message. Respect does not mean accepting that your teachers know more than you do and accepting their authority and insight. It does not involve having the humility to consider others as no less important than yourself. It certainly does not involve obeying the rules of the school and the classroom. It is a vague virtue roughly translated as “not causing too much trouble”. Telling students exactly how to behave respectfully, with reference to actual rules and by indicating that adults are to be obeyed without question, would be far too authoritarian for the modern school. Instead students are exhorted to be polite, inoffensive, smartly dressed and hard working in the vaguest terms possible and usually on the fraudulent basis that this will be reciprocated, or prove to be psychologically beneficial.

Of course, all of this is easier than teaching the unfashionable messages that might actually make a difference. Assemblies on how rules are to be obeyed to the letter, on how doing wrong makes you a bad person, or on how academic achievement will determine your life chances are the exception to the rule. Who are teachers to suggest students shouldn’t end up leaving school criminally inclined, morally reprehensible and intellectually limited?


  1. A good assembly consists of a hymn/ a prayer and a bollocking.

  2. Well that’s an interesting set of comments. So, if there is something wrong with students congregating in racially segregated groups, what are they meant to do when it’s playtime at a faith school?

    Also interested in how many teachers do have incomprehensible accents. I presume it’s a non-zero number, given that it seems to be about 20% of doctors, and they have to do way more exams than teachers.

  3. I don’t understand your first question. Are you suggesting faith schools only have one racial group?

    As for your second question, I have known a few teachers with incomprehsible accents but have never heard of any complaints about them. Kids don’t actually care about teachers’ accents because they don’t actually listen to what teachers say anyway.

  4. “Are you suggesting faith schools only have one racial group?”

    Not necessarily. Where I grew up St. John Fisher Catholic School had both Catholic children, and middle-class Muslim children who didn’t want their kids to grow up ‘in the ghetto’.

    I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing the same isn’t true of the Tauheedul Islam School for Girls, or the Yesodey Hatorah Girls’ Primary School, since its application form specifically says Parents will also need to obtain a supplementary form from the school relating to their commitment to the Charedi Jewish faith which must be signed. Any disputes as to whether a child is Jewish will be settled by reference to the Rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.

  5. Be careful – ‘militant atheists’ is almost an oxymoron. That they take a stance is one thing, but I believe that there is little evidence of militant stance. They would not impose values in the way that religions attempt to – they would remove such impositions. I attended a humanist (hence atheist) funeral this week. He gently gave time for religious attendees to pray. That is inclusiveness.

    • Are you really going to try to claim that all atheists are tolerant and reasonable people who respect the beliefs of others and never take extreme, prejudiced or hate-filled positions?

      One might begin to suspect trolling…

  6. How the world has changed in six years. Christian knowledge is pretty thin on the ground and it would be very hard to find any common ethical position. All opinions are equally valid, no matter how silly you are. In my town pedestrian crossing (an example of a basic human right) are even being abolished to give the cars a better chance of running you over without any consequences. I fear for the future, “Oh brave new world”.

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