How much should we be guiding our students? I don’t mean in the intricacies of our own subject (though that still does apply), but rather in the nebulous realm of values. I’m finding it difficult to shake off the aftermath of the past few weeks on the national stage (though since there haven’t been any big changes yet perhaps these is just another sign of anxious projection into a future that may never come) and it’s taking a lot of effort to work my way through. No use turning to the fart in crisp packet emptiness of ‘British Values’ which has sat behind school’s thinking for the last year plus. While I understand the sentiment, it’s a real dog’s breakfast of a policy to implement usefully (meaning to transfer to students). Sure, I’d say fairness is a British value, but I doubt there are a whole host of foreign teachers shrugging helplessly in their version of PSHE telling their students “No, we don’t do fairness here, that’s really a British value. But if we could only emulate them…”
Values are something perhaps easier to recognise than to list. But how do our values play out when they clash against those of our students? Aside from what we (hopefully) consider the demonstration of positive human values like kindness and equality in our classrooms that adults should be responsible for demonstrating and nurturing, older students are starting to explore other values (freedoms of choice and speech, moral and political stances for example) that may be in conflict with our own. How far does it become fair or ethical to guide students?
Take an example from a student at primary school who decides they want to become a pilot. Great thing to do, high aspirations and so on. The student gets to secondary school and she is still sure that yes, a pilot is what she wants to do. Only we notice at secondary school that maybe her maths isn’t so good. Not necessarily bad, but if you look up what is generally needed to become a pilot you’re looking at 5 A*-C (or probably 9-5 from next year) and at least 2 A levels with maths preferred and probably another STEM one in there. Is it morally right to guide that student along another path? In other words, what are the ethical values of our school institutions? If that sounds like it is straightforward, what about if the same student with dreams beyond their current ability wants to become a singer? Or a pro footballer? Should we always give them the benefit of unconditional support for what the student wants or accept that we may need to offer adult guidance?
I’m not really sure how much other subjects deal with the seepage of student’s pre-cooked values in their lessons. They don’t come up too often in science (ideally if not in practice amoral), but there are certainly times when a student has said something that I disagree with personally or find distasteful, and generally take the approach of trying to present an opposing argument or go into a form of Socratic questioning. Sometimes you can at least get someone to question their own self-beliefs, other times I’m sure it makes no difference. I’m positive I made a hash of this many times in my unexperienced days, but being I’m becoming more certain that as teachers we need to start making some conscious decisions and steps about how to manage these situations in the chirpily named post-truth world. They’re going to come up more and more often.
Unlike hospitals which do have a set of ethical values that are applied every time, in education we have no such guidance. I’ve seen plenty of hand wavy descriptions of schools so vague they may as well be written in smoke, melting* from our grasp before we have time to ask what “achieve their potential’ means. Some school took this to uncomfortable levels in science where they (perhaps understandably given pressures) took upon themselves to remove any choice from students over courses and chose the ones that gave them the best chance of passing (yeah, you know which courses). On one hand you could argue this is ethical because it gives students a chance to at least pass something, on the other hand it prevented students from progressing into certain jobs because they could not access A level courses afterwards. I remember our last head raising eyebrows when the Ofsted dashboard was first published a few years ago, showing our science faculty to be operating nowhere near the level of some other similar schools hitting the top percentiles (it later transpired that the graphs only showed students who were entered for GCSE. Select one group from a cohort and you can get a cosy 90% + pass rate at the potential cost to the rest of the students). Our school has long taken the view that such rigging of students is wrong and to operate an open choice policy, though obviously Prog 8 could well influence us in the future. But would we be better making sure students got 5GCSE +EM? Not because it’s a measure that is of much use to the school, but would the approach provide some students a better chance in the world of education and work. I really don’t know. It doesn’t feel right to take that line and it would certainly have unwanted consequences within other areas of our school that we wouldn’t want to change. A huge obstacle to education is that unlike medicine there is no clear, immediate outcome. It may be years down the line that a school’s unseen work comes to fruition, and not in obvious ways. I can’t help thinking though it would be an interesting idea for say a Free School to run along the lines of genuinely trying to get every student to achieve their dreams. The reality of a group of sullen Year 11s on a Friday afternoon, damning their youthful choices as they sit through double astronaut studies, ballerina theory or train driver tests might be a different matter.
*I am aware that smoke does not melt