The National Curriculum statement of values has been misunderstood, says Graham Haydon

Official pronouncements and initiatives on values education come and go, and some have much longer-lasting effects than others.

In the mid-1990s, when I was writing a book on values in education, the views of a certain Conservative secretary of state for education, John Patten, were fairly fresh in memory. I used one of his speeches as a hook on which to hang some of my arguments. But by the time the book was published, Patten had faded into obscurity. It was then 1997; the New Labour government was about to come on the scene, and with it a new emphasis on citizenship: one of the initiatives that has lasted longer than many.

Statement of values

Meanwhile, the agency that started as SCAA (School Curriculum and Assessment Authority) and continued as QCA was, without much fanfare, engaged in another initiative, rather grandly titled the National Forum for Values in Education and the Community.

This was a group of 150 people, drawn from various walks of life and ethnic and religious backgrounds, who tried to see if they could agree on a statement of values that were held in common across Britain’s plural society.

The forum did produce a list of values, and a public polling exercise showed that most people agreed with the list. The statement has been included in National Curriculum documents since the 1999 revision. As of April 2007, you can still find it on the National Curriculum website at www.nc.uk.net/nc_resources/ html/values.shtml, and it has been retained in the documents on changing the secondary curriculum that QCA put out for consultation earlier this year (see the March issue of this column, and www.qca.org.uk/ secondarycurriculumreview/lenses/building/values/index.htm).

I rarely encounter teachers who are familiar with this statement, let alone say that they use it. People who are aware of it often have a rather negative view.

According to the Ajegbo report on Diversity and Citizenship, ‘The statement came under bitter attack and was perceived by some to be a weak and meaningless set of watered-down “politically correct” values’.

Missing the point

With respect to Sir Keith Ajegbo, whose report is important reading (see the March issue), this kind of criticism misses much of the point. When the statement was first published, many people probably did not read the preamble that explained its purpose. Extracts from that preamble were still included in the 1999 National Curriculum documents. The latest QCA consultation documents, unfortunately, omit the preamble altogether, and actually say that ‘the national curriculum is based on [this] statement of values’. It was never the remit of the original forum to provide a value-base for the whole curriculum (I know; I was one of the 150). Nor was the intention to provide a set of values that could somehow in itself resolve disagreements arising from the diversity of our society.

The intention was a much more limited, but still important one: to demonstrate, to people who claimed there could be no common ground of values in a plural society, that it actually was possible to find quite widespread agreement. If you try to do this, then of course you will have to avoid some controversial issues on which not everyone will agree (you will not find any direct reference, for instance, to the morality of same-sex relationships). In that sense, any resulting statement is bound to be ‘watered down’ in comparison with a whole range of possible and diverse sets of values that different groups might support.

So is the statement ‘politically correct’? Yes, if we can interpret that as meaning that the end-result that has been endorsed after a process of discussion and negotiation. Such a process is bound to be political with a small p, and is none the worse for that. People will argue for their favoured positions, but what comes out in the end is something that everyone can sign up to. So some people wanted a strong statement in support of marriage, while others wanted recognition of diversity of family relationships. The end result has a wording that everyone accepted (look it up). That is actually not a bad illustration of how people can find agreement while not burying their differences.

Reference points

So what is the use of the resulting statement? Teachers from other countries often tell me about their statements of values that the schools are expected to inculcate. That is not the English way. There is nothing statutory about the National Curriculum statement. It is just there, to be referred to if people want to refer to it. If schools don’t choose to refer to it, they are, I suggest, missing a resource that could be useful. The educational value of the statement could be to see it as a set of reference points, in which the fact that there was widespread agreement on the values included is not the end of the matter, but a starting point for discussion about what these values mean to different people and how they can be put into effect in practice. (The original preamble made it quite clear that people could agree, say, that respect is important without agreeing on the reasons why it is important – these might be religious for some people and secular for others – or on exactly what it means in concrete situations. That kind of discussion has nothing to do with inculcating values or with trying to fit everyone into the same mould. It has to do with understanding one’s own values, recognising common ground and exploring and respecting differences.

Valuable resource

When I was recently updating my book for a new edition, I found that while various official initiatives had come, and sometimes already gone, the underlying issues had hardly changed. I dropped Patten, of course, and this time round I have referred to the National Curriculum statement of values because it is a resource, a set of reference points, that is readily available to everyone and a helpful starting point for many of the issues that have to be teased out when talking about values in education.

The Ajegbo report, Diversity and Citizenship Curriculum Review, can be downloaded from the online publications section of www.teachernet.gov.uk

The QCA consultation materials for The Secondary Curriculum Review are at www.qca.org.uk/secondarycurriculumreview

Dr Graham Haydon’s book Values in Education was published recently by Continuum.

First published in Learning for Life, May 2007

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