The drive for numeracy and literacy continues and rightly so; few employers would dispute the importance of school leavers being proficient in reading, writing and ’rithmetic.

Yet many would also rate values such as respect and integrity high on the wish-list for a new employee. And so would society in general.

Teachers have a big responsibility; not only are they obliged to equip students with a curriculum-based education, there is increasingly an expectation to encourage decent values and behaviour.

But surely this is blurring the roles of parent and teacher. Surely it is the parent’s or caregiver’s job to foster good manners and common courtesies and the teacher’s to ensure they can spell and know their periodic table? But what happens when the family fails at their task?

Rewind to 2005; this very discussion was central to the Ministry of Education’s proposal to introduce values into the curriculum, to reflect what was already happening in many schools. Diversity, community, respect and care, equity, integrity, environmental sustainability, inquiry and curiosity, and excellence were those suggested should be taught in schools. The proposal was met with some opposition at the time, mainly from opposing political parties. Other groups, such as the Principals’ Federation, while supportive of values education, still found it frustrating that schools had to spend so much time on it.

At the 2008 National Young Leaders Day in Wellington, Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft spoke to hundreds of primary and intermediate school children about qualities and values to aspire to, to avoid ending up in front of a youth court judge. These qualities included choosing friends carefully, having the guts to say “no”, and living by a values system of core beliefs.

Becroft told the Dominion Post that he thinks schools need to feel confident that there are a set of community-owned values that they can confidently talk about with kids. “Increasingly there’s a role for schools there, I believe, and there’s a community debate to be had about what are the core values that underscore our society.”

The boundaries of what knowledge is imparted to students are largely dependent on who the teacher is and who the students are – such is the intimate nature of a classroom environment. “How can you be a teacher and not be communicating or conveying values just by the person you are? Teachers are trained to teach but they’ll need, I think, increasingly greater support, especially at the sharp end, which is what I see,” said Becroft, although he also acknowledged it was not solely the responsibility of teachers to instil values in children.

Post Primary Teachers’ Association president Robin Duff said values such as care and concern were already features at some schools. He agreed that teachers conveyed values through teaching, but said that imparting values to children was also the responsibility of families and communities.

Certainly it is something of a grey area, and perhaps for this reason, many are opposed to values being taught in schools and believe teachers should stick to the more traditional elements of the curriculum.

But therein lies the rub – values have long been intertwined with reading, writing and ’rithmetic and were traditionally an integral part of a student’s education. Historically, values were primarily taught through religious instruction in schools. New Zealand, a secular state with no official state religion but with a formative Christian heritage, has changed considerably since the 1960s when the current legislation about religion in schools was enacted. Now a diverse nation catering for people from all walks of life, many schools no longer deem it appropriate to impart values in a religious context. In shying away from religion, is it possible New Zealand schools neglected values altogether?

Certainly the demise of youth behaviour, as witnessed by those at the business end of youth and social welfare, seems to go hand-in-hand with the hands-off approach to values education.

With that premise, perhaps it is a good thing that values are increasingly being incorporated into classroom teaching once again. Plunket’s new educational resource, ‘cool 2 b u’, aims to help foster positive learning and social environments. It is designed for, but not exclusive to, Year 7 and 8 students and can be taught by a Plunket educator or the classroom teacher. The resource comprises six modules including empathy, self-esteem, conflict, respect, friendship and values. The modules include questioning what values are and how they are portrayed in the media, the meaning of empathy and respect, a self-esteem makeover, decisions about friendships and discussions on violence. The course aims to prepare students for responsible and responsive relationships with increased social and emotional literacy, and is aligned to specific aims of the New Zealand Health and Physical Education Curriculum.

A New Zealand Catholic Education Office (NZCEO) study of schools’ values programmes found that while some schools actively separate home from school – particularly with regard to the link between behaviour modification and values – most schools conveyed that parents are very happy with their values programmes, with many reporting much parental involvement.

Interestingly, schools with a long history of Christian values did not survey parents or involve them because they consider that there is a clear expectation from parents in choosing the school that the values will be Christian values.

Faith-based schools have seen a surge in popularity in recent years. The November issue of North and South magazine included a feature article that considered why faith schools, and Catholic education in particular, has become such a hot brand. It questioned whether ‘parents really care more about their children’s souls or their brainpower’. The answer, according to the article, is both. Parents are increasingly keen to avoid poorly performing local state schools and are loath to spend up to $16,000 a year in private school fees. Father James Lyons, the parish priest at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Wellington, confirmed this. “Some people are looking for a private education without having to pay the fees and Catholicism is the cheapest option. The faith element is certainly not primary in their thinking,” he said. If Lyons is right, then what is it that parents are after for their children’s education? One parent interviewed believed the nearby Catholic girls’ college would suit her daughter perfectly as it not only produces impressive academic results but seems to turn out children with good manners, respect for elders and other decent values.

The NZCEO’s research found that schools generally began with a standard, established values programme and over time modified it to suit their needs, so that eventually the values became integrated into all school activity. The principal is central to the ongoing success of any values programme; their enthusiasm and proactive approach through means such as assemblies, reward programmes and staff professional development is necessary to keep values programmes alive. Other factors critical to the success of a good values programme are support from the Board of Trustees and parental involvement.

The uncertainty surrounding this area is possibly due to some confusion between teaching ethics and teaching good behaviour. One blogger on the subject – an ethics student – suggests that instead of telling students what’s right and wrong, the emphasis should perhaps be on inquiring about what makes an action right or wrong. Instead of trying to teach values like honesty and respect, show students why it is irrational not to possess these values and discuss why these values are better than the alternatives. Let students argue their case to the contrary, helping them to see any flaws in their arguments. An ethical approach is likely to engage students’ interest and yield better results.

It seems nearly everyone wants New Zealand’s young people to have a social conscience, and yet it is unlikely there will ever be agreement on whether these values should be taught in schools. It certainly seems a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work in such a diverse, progressive and changing country like ours. Perhaps schools need to ponder just where responsibility ends.

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