In this article about the morals and PSHE, Graham Haydon argues against newspaper reactionism

In July 2006, various newspapers reported on teaching right and wrong. The story behind the headlines was that the QCA is considering a revision of the Statement of Aims that is part of the National Curriculum documentation. One proposal would involve dropping the current reference to developing principles for distinguishing between right and wrong, while saying that pupils should develop ‘secure values and beliefs’.

For the leader writers in The Times and the Daily Telegraph this suggested moral decline and creeping relativism. That is a lot to read into a small change in wording, especially when nothing has been decided yet (the proposals are due to go out to consultation next year). But while the journalists may have exaggerated the significance of the story, there are serious issues here that teachers of PSHE need to think about. Can we teach the difference between right and wrong? Are there objective principles for making the distinction? Are any values OK so long as they are secure and enduring?

These are deep questions about the nature of moral education, and they will take more than one column to deal with. Let’s make a start by looking at the current wording of the NC statement.

Part of Aim 2 from the National Curriculum

The school curriculum should promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and, in particular, develop principles for distinguishing between right and wrong. It should develop their knowledge, understanding and appreciation of their own and different beliefs and cultures, and how these influence individuals and societies. The school curriculum should pass on enduring values, develop pupils’ integrity and autonomy and help them to be responsible and caring citizens capable of contributing to the development of a just society. 

What does the National Curriculum say now?
According to the current statement there are some things the curriculum should promote, some things it should develop, and some things it should pass on. It’s not clear how much weight we should attach to this difference in wording (writers often add variety to their wording), but whether deliberate or not it does point to something important.

A knowledge of right and wrong is not something that schools can simply pass on. The term ‘develop’ recognises that people do not acquire principles of right and wrong just by being told them. To be aware of principles, to really appreciate what they mean, to take them seriously, internalise them – all this comes gradually. It needs to be developed in individuals.

The current wording does not actually say that the principles developed will be the same principles for every person. It leaves open the possibility that in different people different principles will be developed for distinguishing between right and wrong. The leader writers may assume that there is just one correct set of principles, but that is something that teachers – and surely their students too – should be able to think about, not take for granted.

There are other deep issues. Do right and wrong really turn on principles? Many people think so, but there are alternative views that say the importance attached to principles is misplaced.  

Do we need principles?
Some questions of right and wrong seem, to most people, easy to answer. You feel insulted by someone; does that mean it’s OK to stick a knife into them? Most people will say no without having to refer back to any first principles. But suppose you have students who do think it’s OK to retaliate in that way. Do they need to be taught principles? Or is the educational task a much more challenging one?

The moral questions that anyone really has to think about are ones that don’t have an obvious answer. You have got yourself into a difficult relationship with two close friends; it seems that if you do right by one you can’t help hurting the other. What is the right thing to do? Are there some principles that will tell you?

Some moral philosophers think that any principles we have will not be much use here. You have to respond to the realities of the particular circumstances, and do the best you can. If you could work out the right answer by applying a general principle, like doing a mathematical calculation, thinking about right and wrong would be a lot easier than it is.

Is knowledge what it’s about?
We all know some things that stick because we need the knowledge for our day-to-day lives. There are many other things that we pick up from reading the papers or watching TV and then soon forget. But could we forget the difference between right and wrong? (A question asked by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle – like most philosophers, good at asking awkward but illuminating questions.)

It’s hard to see the difference between right and wrong as the sort of thing that someone could forget once they have learned it. What this suggests is that developing a sense of the difference between right and wrong is not really a matter of acquiring an item of knowledge at all. Or if it is partly that, it involves much more besides.

I hope the title of this column did not lead you to expect a formula that would tell you what the difference between right and wrong is. Some people think a formula is what we need; other people think it’s the last thing we need. To understand the difference between those two positions, we shall have to dig deeper into – excuse the word – morality. That will have to be in another column.

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

First published in Learning for Life, October 2006