The Price of Principle

During a good-natured discussion this week, a good colleague and friend ribbed me for being too inflexible of principle. I replied that principles wouldn’t be principles if they were adjustable to circumstance.

Maybe that’s a very old-fashioned and (possibly) impractical view, but I believe one not without its uses. It is of course necessary to be adaptable enough in life to address an array of circumstances not always of one’s choosing, and that may indeed require flexibility. But I think this is rather different from the fundamental values that underpin one’s world-view, and thereby one’s personal integrity. For example, one might hope that adherence to honesty could continue to inform all of one’s dealings, no matter what the particular circumstances.

A report that was widely covered this week concluded that the focus on exams is forcing out wider educational aspirations, in particular the transmission of moral values. Research based in Birmingham University suggested that only a minority of school children is able to address moral dilemmas from any view other than personal advantage. These observations come from an organisation that may not be entirely impartial on the matter, but they nonetheless represent something very close to my own day-to-day experience of modern British children, and apparently some 80% of the teachers who responded said similar.

The report can be viewed here.

As discussed in my last post but one, I have reservations about the idea that schools should, or indeed can, overtly teach morality or other ‘soft’ matters – but given the time that young people spend in school, and the impact that those formative years clearly have on people’s lives, I nonetheless think that the values we embody are important. However, we must remember that schools are only one part of people’s moral ‘education’ (if that is the right word) and it is unrealistic to expect them to assume the full burden of responsibility. Writing in today’s Sunday Independent, the columnist Ellen E Jones appeared to agree.

Here is yet another example here of how utilitarian approaches fall short of the mark when it comes to how education, arguably, really needs to function. The technocrats seem to find it almost impossible to account for what was once called the ‘hidden curriculum’ – all of the invisible aspects of education that schools transmit outside their formally taught activities. If the data don’t show it, too often they are just not interested. Because, in this respect, how teachers behave, the values they imply, and the nature of the relationships they establish – dare I say the kinds of people they are – are far more important that what they actually say and do in the planned and measured parts of the school day.

If the school environment is one that promotes exam success above all else, which spends long hours coaching student how best to ‘manage’ the exam process, it implicitly sends a message that anything is fair game so long as the required results are obtained. If  teachers operate in such fear of the consequences of exam results that they too will do almost anything to secure them, this contingency of behaviour is, I would argue, almost destined to be passed on to pupils. I know plenty of pupils canny enough to have realised that schools and teachers are all too easily diverted by their own self-interest, and that this can come at the expense of those whom they supposedly exist to serve; what kind of moral example is that?

As long as schools peddle the message that the purpose of education is to secure personal (largely economic) advantage, that the whole thing is some kind of contest between the individual and the wider world to see who can grab the largest slice, then such values will inevitably infiltrate children’s understanding. We should not forget that schools are simply mirrors of the communities they serve, and if that community is itself egotistically aspirational, then the expression of such values within the school will only amplify the messages coming from elsewhere.

As I have long argued, the emphasis on exam success at any price is promoting precisely such an egocentric view of education, one that has very little time for matters such as honesty, fairness or desert. When the teachers within the school are held to account, and indeed assumed themselves to operate along these lines, the failure to schedule sufficiently moral PSHE lessons is going to be of secondary importance.  I have found out the hard way that the concept of what is deserved simply does not seem to figure in the way modern schools assess their outcomes – and when it comes to the pupils themselves neither does the notion of individual responsibility, no matter how moral a lesson might be learned from the connection between effort and achievement. In this respect, the unspoken messages are far louder than anything that may actually be said to the contrary.

It is also worthy of note that the report identifies wider participation in communal school life as valuable in promoting moral values – precisely those activities that have often been squeezed due to exam pressures.

The government response to the report was sadly predictable, speaking of the ‘good work many teachers are doing around character education’, but this is not really a matter of work; it is a matter of the examples teachers and schools set through their own authentic behaviours. And therein lies another own-goal, for it is largely successive government policy that has created the behavioural flaws that we see today. As has been argued innumerable times, it is the pressure of the inspection and league table regime that has caused schools (albeit expressed through the not entirely unsurprising reactions of their managements) to become exam factories; it is the same pressure that has prompted some in education to exploit the perversities of the system, let alone the growth of schools into huge organisations where a sense of communal obligation is all but impossible.

But while government should hardly be surprised if some in teaching bend under such pressure, it scarcely reflects well on the profession either, if it its own principles are seen to be adjustable according to circumstance. So much for professional integrity – and so much more when one encounters people even in senior positions whose own moral compass does indeed seem to be entirely based on a kind of opportunistic pragmatism rather than genuine ethical principle. This is particularly reprehensible when it comes to the oppressive ‘management’ seemingly  increasingly being applied to teachers; in my view, people who do not even treat their colleagues and employees with principled respect should have no place in a system whose core aim is to transmit civilised values to up-coming generations.

Moral and personal values are an extremely contentious matter in secular, multicultural modern society – but the fact remains that without some kind of underpinning consensus, all sorts of societal horrors risk being released. Moral relativism has to have some limits for the sake of the collective, let alone individual good. There will be few teachers or schools that do not at least pay lip-service to moral principles, but current pressures are increasingly resulting in a moral vacuum where some ethical bottom line clearly needs to exist, empty words where real education by example is needed. Given such a minefield, one might understand the temptation to turn education into a value-free statistical exercise, but that would represent nothing more than a kind of moral cowardice and the abrogation of our wider societal and educational responsibilities.

This is why, so far as is humanly possible, I refuse to bend my own principles: while I do have the luxury only having my own accountability to consider, I think that it is in difficult times that the moral fibre of those in the profession is most severely tested, and we should not be found wanting. I believe it is essential that one should behave in a morally exemplary way towards not only one’s pupils, but also one’s colleagues and one’s institution at all times – even to the point of turning the other cheek. However this should not imply meek obedience, but also an obligation to speak out where one encounters things that one believes to be wrong.

It is not a matter of self-advancement, nor even of explicitly educative behaviour; is it just the way in which people would act in a truly civilised society.



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