The Moral Imperative of our Schools
By Dr Philip SA Cummins
I'm not sure how much of what I want to say about values in schools is in any way new. I believe that values lie at the very core of what it means to be a school and what schools should do. It is inconceivable that a community of learning can function properly without a set of shared beliefs about how this might happen, the contexts in which the learning should take place and the objectives of this learning.
Your school's values
What is the 'right thing' in your school? Do your students, staff and parents clearly understand what your school believes is important, true and essential to the life of your community? Do you have a set of values that seems to sit on the wall and gather dust? Are your values known, understood and lived out by your community members? Is your curriculum responsive to and contextualised by your values? How does your community respond to the diversity of values that are represented within it and around it?
For some years now, we have understood the notion of the 'hidden curriculum' - the acknowledgement of the ways in which our personal and corporate values interact with the daily activity of our work in schools to produce a values laden product. When we try to subsume this interaction beneath a façade of relativism that pretends to be values free, we promote an inherent dissonance that grates at and eventually undermines the cultural fabric of our school.
Enacting on your school's values
It is time, therefore, that we do more than pay lip service to values in our schools. We need instead to affirm what it is that constitutes the rationale of every school - teaching students to do what is right and what is honourable, both academically and more broadly in their lives. This can be done in a number of ways:
- Establish your school's rationale.
- Explicitly set out your rationale.
- Embed your rationale everywhere.
- Expect everyone to execute your rationale.
- Evaluate your rationale regularly.
Articulate your school's charter
As a school, you clearly have a mandate to articulate a charter or code of values that outlines the concepts out of which desired behaviours for your community members flow. How you do this is important. Simple pronouncement of a list of values will have little impact other than to promote cynicism or resistance.
Involve the Board
A more nuanced and collaborative approach is required. Governance involvement is essential; the Board must become involved without becoming prescriptive and hierarchical. Community engagement is critical to ensure that the values of the school evolve in such a way as to reflect the traditions, current reality and future aspirations of the school.
Embedding these values comes about as a result of the various different programs that you put in place. Obvious ones include your personal development, studies of religion, pastoral care, assembly and devotional programs. Yet it should not stop there. Values rich staff professional learning and student curriculum are also essential.
Collaboration with the wider school community
A successful collaborative approach, therefore, will allow people in your school to bind together as a genuine community. Your parents, your staff and, indeed, your students expect this of you. Some will rub up against a perception of authority implicit in this assertion of a core set of values infrequently; others will be more habitual and perhaps more noisy in their resistance to what is deemed desirable and acceptable. Some will argue that it is not for the school to tell them what to believe or how to act.
Yet in the end, it is the things that people share that defines for them their mutual collective experience of the world. A school must be able to demonstrate courage in asserting what it believes is right. How we do this requires some tact, we can't demand rigid compliance insensitively. We always need to provide some room for negotiation as to how the individual approaches the established beliefs of the institution. People take a while to mature in their personal growth, regardless of age or experience. Patience, understanding and forgiveness will be necessary along the way. These are things that great schools have always understood.
- Are the values of your school known to your school community?
- Continue to consider how you can embed your school's values in your wider community.
- Consider who you can involve in this ongoing process.