Why don’t we just… give schools a moral purpose?

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Traditionally, schools in England had two main jobs. They had to teach subjects (English, maths, etc.) and they had to teach children to behave in socially acceptable ways. Now, it seems, they only have to do one of those jobs.

Our research has examined the behaviour management policies of a sample of secondary schools in England. We have found that it is very rare for schools to present behaving well as a good thing in its own right. Instead, children are told that the reason that they should behave well is that their good behaviour allows teachers to teach. When teachers can teach, children can learn, and make progress and succeed. Indeed, a lot of schools’ policies are called Behaviour for Learning policies.

This makes sense but it isn’t the whole story. It isn’t even truthful. Lots of children behave really well but they don’t necessarily succeed. Linking good behaviour with success in this way can seem quite dishonest when you think about it.

We think that one of the problems with the so-called Trojan Horse schools was that some people in the Muslim communities in Birmingham wanted their schools to have a strong moral purpose. Those schools, like many others, were mostly concerned with test results and Ofsted inspections. They didn’t worry too much about moral purpose. This left them open to the Trojan Horse plot where, it seems, hardline Islamists tried to take over some schools in Birmingham.

We agree that schools should teach their children to succeed. But we also think that schools could and should present good, social behaviour as a good thing in its own right. Virtues like respect, consideration for others and open-mindedness are good things for anyone to have (including teachers, of course). They might also lead to academic success but they don’t always. We think that schools should acknowledge this.

Further details from tim.cain@edgehill.ac.uk.

Tim Cain, Helena Knapton, Damien Shortt and Jill McKenzie are Edge Hill University academics

Photo: Tim Cain

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