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Graham Haydon argues that we must go beyond vague references to values.

What are values?

No short and simple answer to such an abstract question is likely to be satisfactory. It’s more helpful – not just in this column, but probably too in your own discussions with your students – to start from the role that values play in our lives. Human beings are evaluating animals. We are pleased or disappointed at things that happen in our lives; we consider some outcomes are worth aiming at and other states of affairs are well worth avoiding; we decide it is better to do X rather than Y; we consider it would be wrong to do one thing but all right to do some alternative; and so on. The most general thing we can say about values is that they are the considerations in the light of which we make all these different sorts of evaluations.

One sociological definition has it that values are ‘conceptions…of the desirable’.  These conceptions can operate explicitly in our thinking or implicitly; they will normally be shared with at least some other people.

The diversity of values

Some of these conceptions take the form of abstract ‘big ideas’ such as freedom, justice and dignity. Sometimes we express values in the form of principles or rules that we think people should follow in their actions; if dignity is an important value, then ‘treat people with dignity’ would be one principle that expresses it. The same values can function as standards for evaluating a state of affairs; we might, for instance, criticise the way some patients are treated as lacking dignity. 

Our conceptions of what is desirable also cover personal qualities (such as kindness or courage), which philosophers often call ‘virtues’. Not all values are high-sounding aspirations; particular conceptions of what is desirable, what is worth having or aiming at, are incorporated into many aspects of various ways of life. So we can speak of the values of consumerism; the values of entrepreneurial society; the values of academic life, or whatever. 

There is, in short, a great variety of values entering into anyone’s life, before we even think about diversity between people. Multiculturalism is not responsible for plurality of values but reflects a plurality that is built into human life anywhere: there are many values (not just one big Value) because there are many things that matter in people’s lives, many things that people care about. Hardly any of these values are peculiar to one individual: as we go through life we can come to appreciate a whole world of values that other people (maybe all other people, maybe just some) have already recognised before us.

The point of PSHE

It’s a sweeping generalisation, but it seems to me that the underlying role of PSHE is to help young people to find their own way through that world of values. In the process they will find that some values are more important to them than others. This is not saying that they have a free choice out of all the possibilities: see September’s Values for Living. They also have to learn to take account of other people’s values. Perhaps they will come to see that there are some values that they, and other people, must live by (this may be where morality fits into the picture, but I shall come back to that another time).

Values clarification

Values clarification was a popular approach in the United States at one time. It held that schools should help students to get clear about the values that really matter in their lives. It attracted a good deal of criticism for focusing on individuals’ values in this way, without laying down particular values that all people in society should follow.

Encouraging people to follow particular values may well be part of moral education.  But just as morality does not cover the whole field of values, so moral education is not the whole of values education. People will not come to have a clear view of the demands that morality can make on them, if they do not see how those demands relate to everything else that matters in their lives. It must be important for young people (and their teachers) to be able to think clearly about their values, and other people’s values.

Thinking through values

A first step is to be careful not to mislead ourselves and our students by the way we use the word ‘values’. The QCA Units of Work for PSHE, for instance, if not handled carefully (see below), could give the messages that values are mainly important when there are problems in interpersonal relationships, especially important for people of religious faith, and problematic because people have different values. Why don’t we use the word values also for all those aspects of life that are important to almost everybody?

The QCA on values in PSHE

The QCA website contains among its resources a series of units of work (non-statutory, of course) for PSHE (www.qca.org.uk/15037.html): seven on Sex and Relationship Education; three on Healthy Lifestyles; two on Financial Capability; and seven (A to G) on Drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco. There are several references in these units to discussing differences in values. It is also said that children should value their individuality and identify what they value in others.

The great majority of these explicit references to values and valuing come in the SRE units; the rest in the Drug Alcohol and Tobacco units, eg in relation to resisting peer pressure to take drugs. ‘Values’ are coupled with ‘beliefs’ or ‘faith’ in several places. The word ‘value(s)’ does not occur in the Healthy Lifestyle or Financial Capability units at all.

Implicitly, values do come into Healthy Lifestyles and Financial Capability. These are elements in PSHE in the first place because health and freedom from financial insecurity are important conditions for anyone’s life going as well as it can. But what message is being given about values if we do not actually use the word values in these contexts?

Dr Graham Haydon is course leader, MA in Values in Education, Institute of Education University of London.

First published in Learning for Life, December 2006

This article first appeared in Active Enrichment: Sports Themed Activities across the Curriculum – Dec 2006

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