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Ethical Education

12.59 pm

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): The object of my debate is to raise the issue of moral education. I wanted to raise the issue in a general way, but the Table Office told me that I had to make it specific to a Department, so I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), for coming here to field my remarks in so far as they relate to schools.

My central claim is that morality is a complex subject worthy of our attention. That is not a trivial point. Our aim should be for all children leaving school to be able to understand the complexity of morality. They should be able to grasp key moral ideas and understand the structure of ethical arguments. They should be able to make moral judgments and understand how the capacity to engage in moral discourse is integrally related to the development of moral character. The exploration of morality has occupied philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, historians, poets, novelists and political scientists. Any one of us has but a shadowy grasp of the world of ethics, but we should all aspire to develop such an understanding of the subject as would enable us to live a good life.

Although morality is complex, the list of "ists" that I gave of those who have sought to understand it would leave most of those who graduate from our schools numb with boredom. The view of many of them is that morality is trivial. They see it as a sphere in which there are many conclusions but little use of reason, and which produces much certainty--as contributors to "The Moral Maze" evince--but involves little mutual understanding. While most school graduates know that much study is required to explain why a table can support a vase of flowers, most think that they are experts on morality. They feel that they need use little reasoning power to form conclusions about whether their own, or their mates', behaviour conforms to the moral law. Although they might not put it that way, comments such as, "It's just not on", or "He's gone too far", can function as moral judgements.

Our educational system and our society trivialise the complex subject of morality. I suggest to the Minister that the Government should pay attention to that paradox and that there should be new initiatives in education explicitly to address the matter. I sought this debate because of the demand that the father of little Damilola Taylor made for moral regeneration in our society. If we can stop trivialising morality, perhaps it will be taken seriously.

There are two particularly strong agencies of trivialisation, which may serve partly to explain why Parliament has so far failed to react to Mr. Taylor's impassioned request. Our children are failed by an education system that marginalises ethical inquiry, but they are failed, too, by a press that trivialises morality, particularly by sexualising it. The press, for the most part, sees the realm of the ethical as the realm of the sexual, not least because that seems to be a recipe for exciting the curiosity of a large readership.

One reason why morality is seldom broached in Parliament is because no Department has specific responsibility for it. Moreover, hon. Members who raise

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the issue are liable to be subject to malevolent treatment by the press. Someone who talks in public about morality is viewed as a target to be shot down, even if that requires extensive inquiries into his or her past, which will, of course, produce stories of the "Moralising MP stole lollipop from nursery friend" variety. Such malevolent trivialisation often takes a sexualised form, as in the "Minister had love nest" sort of story. I make it clear to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that I was thinking not of her, but of religious ministers. I do not deny that each of us can use the fact that others are sexually attracted to us to hurt, degrade, denigrate, betray and exploit them, but the immorality lies in the hurting, degrading and exploiting, not in the fact of seeking out and having a sexual relationship.

Perhaps because of such pressures, we end up with a Parliament that does not broach this subject. That is partly because the last time that such subjects were raised, under the premiership of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), those who did so were ridiculed, and partly because their credentials as a source of ethical authority were vilified. As it happens, I think that the idea that one could conduct a sensible ethical debate under the slogan "back to basics" or the rubric "a return to common sense" was hardly more sophisticated than the trivialisation it sought to transcend. Nevertheless, to take on the debate at all showed courage, and the fact that it ended in dismal failure is now taken as a warning that the area of the ethical is one that politicians enter at their peril. The result is a society that acquiesces in the ignorance of our young people about the subjects that are most important.

It is perhaps contentious to describe this subject as the most important of all, but what I want for my own children and, though I am naturally attracted to the idea that they will pass zillions of exams, what would make me most proud, is their turning out to be good people. Contrary to the tabloid model, by "good people" I do not mean that I do not want them to have a sexual identity. A propensity to sexual activity is a normal part of life, and the more extreme religious systems notwithstanding, to be a sexual being is fully compatible with being a good person.

Young people emerge from our schools with a trivialised understanding of moral ideas. Talk of virtues is regarded as antiquated. Literature written by great practitioners such as Milton, George Eliot and Dickens, in part to explain the formation of moral character, is regarded as dull, over-lengthy and out of date. The word "wicked" is a term of commendation, and young people in the public eye who might function as models for behaviour--such as Eminem--are more likely to describe their abuse of another person than to recommend an attitude of care and considerateness. We are left to live with some of the consequences of that neglect of the ethical. Those who graduate from school are often far more interested in earning a great deal of money than in constructing a life that will involve service to one's fellow human beings. It is becoming progressively harder to recruit to caring professions--teaching, the police, social work--and ever easier to recruit to causes and careers that are handsomely rewarded monetarily. In the late 18th century, Mandeville wrote an ironic text in which he argued that virtue is vice and vice is virtue, but only at the end of the

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twentieth century did "Greed is good" become a slogan for a way of life. Those who try to teach ethics are referred to by terms of abuse such as "moraliser", "preacher" and--after investigation of the contrast between what they say and what they do reveals the inevitable character flaws that we all share--"hypocrite". Given the cultural propensity to denigrate morality, it is astonishing to discover the resilience of core ethical ideas. In my constituency, for instance, 115 young people have signed up to devote a portion of their spare time to helping others through a young person's volunteer bureau. Last week, so many people turned up to the funeral in my constituency of Martin Lynch, who was both a head teacher and man of virtue, that the service had to be held in a cathedral. They, at least, had been set the example of a good man. Although our society is morally abstentionist, the human capacity to do good still emerges. We must re-establish as an explicit aim the moral education of our young people, so that such facts are not remarkable but commonplace.

What form does the trivialisation of the ethical take? From my experience, as a university teacher, I found that it took two forms. I found that most of those who arrived at university had emerged from school with a view that ethics was subjective, a matter of taste, and, hence, that it is a waste of time to discuss the realm of morality. There was a pathetic ethical theory of the 1930s that gave some vestigial intellectual support to that view. One might call it the "hurrah-boo" theory of ethics, which held that if one said that an action was morally good, one was only saying, first, that one approved of it and, secondly, hurrah! That reduced ethical argument to the level of a pub discussion between a fan of Rangers and a fan of Celtic. You, Mrs. Michie, might be an authority on such discussions.

The second strong influence on our schools and culture is the obedientiary view of ethics, which means that all one need do to be moral is obey. That has strong roots in the religious tradition in so far as it is authoritarian. In that tradition, to say that an action is good is to say that God has commanded it, and, hence, one must do it, which is a view accepted by most religions. Although that view of ethics works well for young children--I approve of it for that purpose because it lifts them up so that they can stand on the first rung of the ethical ladder--by the time a pupil has reached the age of 12 or 13 obedience to authority has less hold, regardless of whom, be they parental or transcendental, the young person is being enjoined to obey.

An obedientiary model may be reasonable for a five-year-old--"You must do it because I am your father." It may, however, prove uncompelling to a 15-year-old--"Just who are you to lay down the law?" It is imperative, therefore, that we ask what kind of ethical understanding we seek to engender in young people. Only if we address that question, can we provide a clue to schools and colleges about how they might manage the transition from an obedientiary ethic to one based on a footing that will help older children and adults to understand that ethical judgments are substantive.

Some people will say that the Government are addressing the issue. There is, for instance, the citizenship agenda. I welcome that because it addresses part of what it is to have a developed ethic. I was canvassing recently and spoke to a man whose door was

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slightly obstructed by toys, which I thought might belong to his children. I told him that I was his Member of Parliament, to which he replied, "Not interested." I was unable to resist saying that it was just as well that some people were interested, or the social system of yesteryear, which ensured that the children of most people were denied educational opportunity, would still be in place. He said, "Look, mate, I'm only interested in number one." Indeed, he said that aggressively enough for me to vacate his doorstep shortly afterwards.

Perhaps the citizenship agenda will produce people who understand what a local council does, how democracy works and what one gets for paying taxes. I do not doubt that that will be a massive improvement on a society that was democratic in name, but which relied on tabloid newspapers and radio shock-jocks to tell people these things. It is hard to be a citizen if one does not know of what one is a citizen. The fundamental flaw is that one cannot use a course in citizenship to teach ethics because some people are citizens of states that require them to behave in immoral ways. The citizen should always be empowered to judge ethically the state of which he or she is a member. The standard example of an immoral state is the Nazi regime, but it may be sensible to admit that the phenomenon is quite common. An education in ethics transcends an education in citizenship, because it gives people the tools by which they might judge with confidence whether the state actually deserves their compliance.

The Government have introduced critical thinking into the curriculum. I welcome that initiative, not least because I taught it for many years. The ability to anatomise an argument, to understand its structure and to ascertain the extent to which its conclusion is justified is a crucial skill that empowers pupils and students to base their judgments on something more than prejudice and dubious authority. However, critical thinking is not enough. The most crucial use of the power of reasoning is on moral subjects, and there is strong evidence that critical thinking courses will not provide the pupil or student with an understanding of ethical theories that would make possible the application of such skills to the ethical domain. Between citizenship and critical thinking, the Government have produced a tasty sweet. The sweet, however, is a Polo mint, and ethics is the hole in the middle.

I do not have time to spell out the implications of the trivialisation of ethics on our wider society, but it has repercussions, even in Parliament. I was struck by recent debates on the use of embryonic stem cells for research, during which the Government's spokesperson used, primarily, a utilitarian ethical system--which she then explicitly disavowed. The debate on Alder Hey children's hospital primarily employed a deontological, or rights-based, ethical system.My own view is broadly Kantian, which is bound up with the idea that one should not use one's capacity for free action to do things that curtail a similar freedom for others. An essential respect and reverence for other human beings is involved in that. In view of the time allowed, I cannot do more than hint at my own moral position.

What I have sought to do is show that ethics is a complex matter that should not be treated as trivial. Some will say, "Who are you, to make such claims?" I would respond that, just as one does not have to understand the whole of human history to be able to

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teach history, one need not be omniscient about ethics, or be morally perfect, to be able to transmit some ethical wisdom to the young. We, the older generation, often relinquish that responsibility too readily because it is thought of as too difficult. We then end up with young people who lack the capacity to conduct a moral discourse or to consider ethical judgments rationally. That some young people behave so well, given the poor grounding that we give them, says something for human ethical resilience.

One result of pupils understanding the complexity of morality may be a heightened respect for moral law. Such respect would require many parties--teachers, politicians, parents and editors of newspapers--to recognise that trivialising morality renders a grave disservice to our fellow human beings. The father of Damilola Taylor called for moral regeneration in our society. I ask the Minister to help that process by ensuring that both the citizenship and critical thinking curriculums give explicit attention to ethical subjects. That might help the next generation to be better at teaching, parenting, publishing and politicking than we have been. The memory of a little boy who died because some people did not see him as a human being, but as an object, deserves nothing less.

1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith ): I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) on securing the debate. As he pointed out, the debate is very wide. It stretches beyond any single Department and into the realms of individual and family responsibility and how our communities and other influences, such as the media, operate.

For that reason, it is not possible for schools and the education system to be the sole forum for dealing with the problems that my hon. Friend rightly identified. Because we know that our teachers and schools can be effective, we must ensure that our schools and education system provide opportunities for young people to learn about ethical and moral dimensions. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I use the remaining time to concentrate on what schools and the education system can do.

I welcome my hon. Friend's commitment to ensuring that young people are taught about ethical, moral and philosophical issues. As a Government, we have taken broad strides forward in the education system, especially by investing in developing pupils' critical thinking. We have introduced a new national curriculum, which includes, for the first time, a framework for personal, social and health education and citizenship for all children from the ages of five to 16. For the first time, a statement of values forms an integral part of the national curriculum. Part of that statement of values in the national curriculum handbook relates to the self. It states:

That clearly sets the context for what we expect our schools to deliver and our children to learn within the national curriculum. Of course, ethical issues are also

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covered in a wide range of curriculum subjects. Certain aspects of science, history and geography develop children's cognitive abilities and investigative skills. However, I want to concentrate on ethical education.

There are already good examples of schools that are developing in young people the skills that enable them to make the kinds of decisions that my hon. Friend described. Schools that teach those skills demonstrate respect for the individual pupil, resulting in less disaffection. For example, Mason Moor primary school in Southampton has demonstrated the value of an emotional literacy strategy derived from philosophy in giving pupils appropriate means to express their emotions, rather than using verbal or physical violence. Pupils as young as five and six are developing a rich spoken and written vocabulary within the literacy hour, making the important curriculum link. The school has reported the impact of this work on behaviour--it is reflected in increasing attendance and reduced exclusions.

My hon. Friend said that he wants his children to leave the education system not only with the high standards of education towards which the Government strive, but as good people. I remind him that the Green Paper, "Schools building on success", which the Government published last month, explicitly set out our plans to promote standards and education with character. It emphasises the importance of creativity, flexibility, reasoning, logical thinking, and social and moral responsibility through citizenship. It stresses the need for schools to develop a positive, respectful and can-do ethos. Ethical education has a key role to play in future education provision.

A major step forward since my hon. Friend last introduced a debate on moral and philosophical issues--an interesting and wide-ranging debate that I was able to read before coming here today--has been our new personal, social and health education and citizenship framework. I shall turn to some of the shortcomings that my hon. Friend identified. However, I should point out--as we are talking about something that has to make a practical difference in schools--that the framework is supported by £12 million of standards fund money this year and £15 million next year. We are not asking schools to deliver progress without the necessary support and funding to spend on curriculum materials, resources and training.

Our new personal, social, health education and citizenship framework will provide children with the opportunities identified by my hon. Friend to think seriously about moral, social and political issues. It will encourage the development of inquiry, reflection and debating skills. It will enable young people to learn to take responsibility for themselves, to understand the implications of certain actions on a day-to-day level and for society. Young people should be taught at every age to consider social and moral dilemmas. For example, pupils aged between five and seven might learn about fairness and the difference between right and wrong. Between the ages of eight and 11 they might be taught about respect and understanding between different races and how to deal with harassment. The ages of 12 to 14 are particularly important as children grow and develop, so they could learn how their choices as consumers affect other people's economies and environments. At key stage 4, 15 to 16-year-olds could

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consider social and moral dilemmas such as genetic engineering. The personal, social and health education framework emphasises the development of respect for other people and the sort of attitudes that my hon. Friend identified. I shall refer to that later.

My hon. Friend suggested that citizenship covers only political literacy. Important though that is, I would argue that the citizenship curriculum has been framed to provide important opportunities for spiritual and moral development through awareness and understanding of meaning and purpose in life and of different values in society. It also supports moral development by helping pupils to develop a critical appreciation of issues of right and wrong, justice, fairness, rights, and obligations in society. It also places an important emphasis on active involvement. My hon. Friend gave examples of young people volunteering in his constituency, and that is important as we develop our work to promote citizenship education in schools. We are emphasising those three strands. Political literacy is important, but so is the active involvement of young people in decisions about themselves, their schools, their community and broader moral issues. From September 2002, citizenship education will be a statutory entitlement for all children in secondary schools.

My hon. Friend referred to sex, and I accept some of his points about the way in which our society deals with issues concerning sex, which are reflected in the Government's decisions to improve sex and relationship education. Many young people believe that their previous sex education put too much emphasis on the

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mechanics and too little on the importance of developing relationships, and research supports that view. Through personal, social and health education, and our guidance to schools, we are putting greater emphasis on developing the important skills for relationships and respect for themselves and others.

It is worth referring to the Government's policy on bullying. It is important that all schools have a policy for tackling bullying. The revised guidance that we issued last year emphasised that and the importance of schools involving young people in discussion and debate on how to operate policies on bullying most effectively. Personal, social and health education and the way in which that is reflected throughout the school provide an important opportunity for young people to engage in discussion about their own behaviour, the way in which they treat other people and the rules and decisions that are necessary in a school to make it the sort of environment that we would want for all our young people.

The debate is wide ranging. I have addressed only the areas where the Government, schools and teachers are playing an important part in developing young people who are able to make the kind of moral decisions that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead outlined. That is not a job for schools alone. We have a wider responsibility as individuals, parents and in our communities. However, I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that not only the Government, but the education system that we support, will continue to play an important role.

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