School Values in Scotland

by Gary Walsh and Neil McLennan

Neil McLennan and I have been ‘speaking of values’ for a number of years now. We co-wrote a book entitled Speaking of Values with Dr Emma Fossey in 2016. The book is a series of interviews with various people in Scotland – leaders in the fields of education, business, social enterprise, the arts, youth activism, hospitality, medicine, and the Public and Third sectors – reflecting on the role of values in their lives and work.

On the back of that, we decided to try and learn some more about how values are understood and promoted in Scottish schools. The simplest way to do that seemed to be to ask teachers what their stated school values are, and to dig a little deeper to try and learn how the values had been identified and how they are defined. So we created a survey designed to do just that. It is a small-scale piece of work from which we can draw no firm conclusions: more robust research would be required to explore the issues in depth. The intention of creating the survey and sharing the results is to spark some further thought and dialogue, encouraging people in education to continue ‘speaking of values’ at a time when values couldn’t be more important. It seems entirely appropriate to be sharing the results in conjunction with World Values Day.

*The results presented here were collated up until 16th October 2017. The survey is still open and will run until 30th November 2017.*

This post does not offer a full analysis of the survey results – it presents the raw data gained so far and offers some thoughts by way of an initial conclusion. The survey responses suggest to us that there is a lot more to school values than what is written on school walls and websites. To borrow a recent quote from a Scottish teacher on Twitter, schools often try to ensure that values are “lived and not laminated”. The survey indicates that this is an attractive but ultimately extremely complex ambition.

Summary of survey results

As at 16th October 2017, approximately 45 teachers had submitted completed responses to the survey, covering a wide range of schools from across Scotland including primary, secondary, an independent school, state schools, non-denominational schools, faith schools, urban, rural, semi-rural and schools with specialist provision for additional support needs. School rolls varied from less than 10 to over 800, and schools were situated across all areas accounted for in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.

94% have a list of school values, with a small number saying they need to be reviewed. The most common school value was ‘respect’. Below is a word cloud that summarises the most popular words found in school statements associated with school values (taken from a combination of school values ‘lists’ and mission statements, provided by respondents).

How were your school values identified?

26 respondents (58%) said that their school values were identified “by consulting with various groups of people”.  3 respondents (7%) said they were identified by “teachers only”, 1 respondent (2%) said they were identified “by school management only”.

Who specifically contributed to the identification of your school values?

26 respondents (57%) indicated that “all pupils” contributed to the identification of school values, 8 (17%) said a “specific group of pupils” contributed (e.g. pupil council), 20 (43%) said all staff contributed, 9 (20%) said a specific group of staff contributed (e.g. management team or working group), 18 (39%) said all parents contributed, 9 (20%) said a specific group of parents contributed (e.g. parent council) and 10 (20%) said that members of the community contributed.

Respondents also said that other people involved in the identification of school values include former school captains, partner agencies and the local business community. Values were sometimes identified using a series of consultations that were later deciphered by teachers. 5 respondents commented that they did not know how values were decided, with 2 saying that the values had been decided before they started their role in the school.

How were the final values agreed upon?

17 (39%), the largest number of respondents, said that they did not know how the values were agreed. 2 (5%) respondents said that one person decided. 3 (7%) respondents said the values were agreed by vote. 16 (36%) respondents said that the values were agreed by group discussion. 4 (9%) said that the values were agreed using a survey or questionnaire.

2 respondents further explained that the final decision was made by staff during inservice days. 1 respondent said that the headteacher had the final say. 2 respondents said that the decision was made by pupil and parent councils, and 1 respondent said it was done during school assembly.

How often are your school values reviewed?

18 (40%), the largest number of respondents, said that they did not know how often school values are reviewed. 3 (7%) said they were reviewed every year, 4 (9%) said they were reviewed every two years and 7 (16%) said they were reviewed every three years.

1 respondent further explained that it depended on the number of new staff joining the school. 3 respondents indicated that a review tends to take place over longer timescales e.g. every 4/5 years, 5-10 years. 1 respondent said the values are never reviewed. 2 respondents explained that the values were new to the school and still being embedded.

Did you use any of the following policy documents when identifying your school values?

27 (66%), the largest number of respondents, said they used How Good is Our School when identifying school values. 21 (51%) said they used Curriculum for Excellence. 10 (24%) said they used the GTCS Professional Standards. 25 (61%) said they used GIRFEC.

3 respondents said they referred to UNICEF (Rights Respecting Schools) or UN values. 1 respondent said they referred to partner schools from around the world. 1 respondent indicated that, as the school is a community campus, the school consulted with the local Leisure Centre and Community Learning and Development services. 1 respondent indicated they will be using the policy documents listed above to help inform a vote on school values. Another respondent said they used HGIOS to identify “what we are good at”, and children were invited to contribute later at an assembly. 3 respondents said that they did not use policy documents. 1 respondent said they did not know.

Did you use any research frameworks or theories when identifying your school values?

21 (50%), the majority of respondents, said they did not use any research frameworks or theories. 8 (19%) said they did use research frameworks or theories.

6 respondents explained that they did not know whether research frameworks were used. 1 respondent said they used Growth Mindset theory. 1 respondent said they used the “hierarchy of childrens’ needs”. 1 respondent said they used “ethics and values led education”. 1 respondent said they would use the values element of their Into Headship programme.

Did you use any other tools, resources or points of reference when identifying your school values? (e.g. community artefact, website, book etc.)

16 (38%), the largest number of respondents, said they did not use any other tools. 9 (21%) said they did.

5 respondents said they looked at the values of other schools. 1 respondent further explained: “we talked with partner schools from Scotland/ Africa to discuss values which were important and why to those cultures and communities to help us develop a list”.

3 respondents said they referred to community values, with one explaining “During open days members of the community could put their thoughts down on posters. Parents and families voted” and another explaining “Our values are influenced by ex pupils and members of the community who have gone on to achieve and then visit the school to talk about their experiences”.

One respondent said they used “whole school challenges” to identify values, one said they referred to “Scottish values”, one said they referred to “Catholic values” and another said they referred to “values education theories”.

Is there an underlying theory regarding your school values? (e.g. ideas/principles regarding how they work or how they are best realised)

14 (36%), the largest number of respondents, said they don’t know if there is an underlying theory regarding school values. 9 (23%) said there is an underlying theory and 8 (21%) said there was not an underlying theory. Further comments received were as follows:

“Social constructivism, learning styles, emotional intelligence.”

“Again, not really a theory, but a belief that shared values form the basis of what the school community stands for and aspires to be. It is so important for staff to model these in day to day interactions in and out of the classroom and to refer to these as part of our Rights Respecting School agenda, our Five Pillars for Successful Learning and our ethos of the PB Factor – Personal Best.”

“If everyone in our school community (pupils, parents, staff) are involved in deciding the values then there is buy-in from all. This will mean they are most effective in impacting the ethos and direction of our school and ultimately in ensuring it is the best place for the children.”

“We looked at different values that were important and people chose the ones appropriate to our school.”

“From work in Values based education”

“RRSA and Girfec”

“We have a vision that our values will help the pupils and staff can attain and achieve all they can with and in the community”

In your opinion, are your school values visible and active in the daily life of your school?

22 (56%), the majority of respondents, said that school values are visible and active. 4 (10%) said they were not and 1 (3%) said they did not know. Further comments received as follows:

“Works in line with the classroom code for success and learning and teaching statements.”

“On the wall all around the school and discussed in school assembly fortnightly.”

“I refer to the core values when setting class tasks and also when a student may be unaware that they care challenging these values.”

“behaviour system, assemblies, possible new report card format”

“Most definitely. We make regular reference to our values through assembly, school newsletters, class discussions, parent engagement. Children, parents and staff are very aware of our values.”

“Some are, some less so. Some staff make reference to them, and some of the SLT use them in their communications. There are copies displayed in all teaching areas. Some staff do not explicitly refer to them. Pupils in general do not refer to them regularly.”

“Huge banner displaying our values outside the building, glossy posters of our values displayed in every classroom, regular assemblies delivered by SMT referring to values, values referred to regularly in staff meetings and CPD sessions. Values included in all teachers planning folders as point of reference. Values highlighted in school handbook and website, values included as banner on school letterhead.”

“The Vision and Values are embedded through regular references in assemblies, posters throughout the school, inclusion in pupil planners and references during vertical tutor time. In some subjects, projects can revolve around sharing and discussion of the vision and values.”

“On boards where they are seen daily by everyone in school. Referred to at assemblies and in classes”

“visible and on display, tied into behaviour policy and restorative conversations framework.”

In your opinion, how accurate are each of these statements?

Responses indicate that values are most commonly understood as dispositions: defined in the survey as “the attitudes, beliefs or norms we promote in our school”. Values are also commonly understood as relational (“they describe how we relate to one another and how we interact”), aspirational (“they describe or relate to the aims of our school”) and cultural (“they are the values of society that we uphold in our school”). It is noticeable that values are understood in various ways, with positive results for all categories provided in the survey, with the exception of values as absolute (“they are not open to change, exception or negotiation”). It is also noticeable that values are simultaneously understood in ways that might seem incompatible e.g. motivational and aspirational; rules and relative; personal, relational and cultural; intrinsic and extrinsic.

Have you got any further comments about your school values, or about this survey?

Comments received were as follows:

“We just updated these values in March 2017 and they were finalised in May 2017”

“We ‘reimagined’ our values and redesigned sharing to make more inclusive (dyslexic friendly etc) colour coded and visually graphic.”

“Our core values have been recently introduced this term and so it may take time for the school community to absorb them into our culture. However they hint at the work of Schwartz theory of basic values where our core values are universalism, benovolence, self direction and achievement.”

“As values are constantly under review they are adaptable to the needs of the school.”

“Brand new values for this academy session due to new HT, still implementing these into school life so hard to fully comment on impacts after only one term.”

“I think our school values are an ideal. I think policy can often conflict with our school values. I think that national, top-down policy implementation can directly challenge the reality of living by our school values. School management and middle leaders have the dilemma of reconciling our school values with implementation of policy from above.”

“Our values work is one of the most important pieces of work I have completed in school.”

“Resilience is a new value in our school and this has been promoted and developed through the Bounceback programme.”

“The previous question was hard to answer as our values are not yet clearly displayed and acknowledged in the school. They are referred to frequently but as general values not as specific school values.”

“The role of vision and values could be discussed further. However as a relative newcomer to the school I have observed that the values are part of the intrinsic ethos of the whole community”

“From thinking about these questions, there is more to school values than I had realised. Will look forward to exploring this further.”

“It took a long time for the working group to develop values that could help all but I think we did a good job. They have been in place for more than five years, they are used in restorative practice, in class management, between pupils and staff.”

“We are currently reviewing our values through an extensive consultation process”

Final thoughts

There are a number of possible explanations for the results in this survey, particularly the more nuanced responses that give a glimpse into the ways in which school values are interpreted by teachers. One of the most important factors is the limitations of the survey itself and the wording of questions and categories used.

Another explanation, however, could be a lack of understanding of values theory. The respondents in this survey said that values are most commonly understood as being dispositions. This is entirely fair given that educational discourse often says that we should be equipping pupils with certain values, particularly those that relate to responsible and active citizenship. However, the Schwarz Theory of Basic Values, for instance, indicates that values differ substantially from dispositions, attitudes, beliefs or norms. Instead, dispositions are underpinned by a combination of different values, and especially the ways in which values come into conflict. Dispositional characteristics “describe what people are like” but do not necessarily describe their values, understood as “what people consider important” (Schwarz 2012: 17). Similarly, Schwarz’s framework indicates that there can be a difference between values and the results of our actions e.g. an artist may be successful but may have been motivated by something like ‘a world of beauty’ or ‘meaning in life’, rather than being motivated by success or achievement itself. This could indicate that it would be perilous to allow a situation where the values driving education are too closely associated with instrumental views of success in a competitive job market.

This leads to another consideration that is mentioned in one of the final comments in the survey. One of the respondents said “I think our school values are an ideal. I think policy can often conflict with our school values. I think that national, top-down policy implementation can directly challenge the reality of living by our school values. School management and middle leaders have the dilemma of reconciling our school values with implementation of policy from above.” Perhaps this hints at the way in which educational policy has developed in recent years and the ways in which we understand the purposes of education. Since the 1970s in particular, educational policy in Scotland and other countries has been shaped by a conflict between the values of child-centred education and education driven by economic and social goals. This can leave teachers with the challenge of working in a situation where their capacity to act in accordance with professional values is threatened, distorted or limited by the values driving educational policy.

It may be of benefit therefore to bolster teachers’ ability to traverse these issues by developing a more in depth and shared understanding of values theory, the often implicit role that values play in the development of educational policy, the conflict between evidence-based and values-based education and the various positions on values education. It also seems important to explore the dangers of having an overtly behaviouristic approach to values in schools. The paper Research into Values in Secondary Education: A Report to the Gordon Cook Foundation recommends that pupils have an opportunity for a genuine exploration of values, which would involve the opportunity to challenge the values being espoused to them through critical analysis, democratic participation and activism. Are we ready to have that conversation, if it is not already happening? Making the effort to do so could help to further inform values-based practice and leadership in schools.

When we first began ‘Speaking of Values’ we never intended to impose any set of values of beliefs about the construct on others. Instead we wanted to delve deeper to understand the concept and better understand other people’s views. Indeed in our pre-publication discussions one person pointed out that in Scotland ‘we don’t tend to wear our values on our sleeves’. With that in mind there was something to be critiqued and explored. Exploration perhaps remains a key outcome for us and those who have taken part in this survey. For values do not stand still, they change with the time, people, influences and places we live and work in. Furthermore there would appear to be lots of scope for deeper exploration.  The survey itself could be only the starting point. But also the results perhaps indicate scope for deeper thinking and exploration of the construct.

With 57% of respondents saying all pupils were involved: what about the other 43% where not all pupils were involved? Which pupils were excluded, if indeed they were excluded? Why were they not involved?

39% responded said they don’t know how the school values are agreed upon. Does this say something about communication of the formation and finalising of values in schools or more about the individual and their awareness of the processes going on? Either way, there is more to explore here.

It was interesting to see what respondents said they used to stimulate thinking in formation and identification of values. In our survey, 66% said they used How Good Is Our School (HGIOS) to form school values. How Good Is Our School 4 (HGIOS4) references “values” 23 times, however it does not offer a wide overview of what values are or references to further exploratory works, nor does the General Teaching Council for Scotland (regulatory body for teachers) in the Standards for Career Long Professional Learning. This document references “values” 21 times. At present, GTCS frameworks are being revised and a deeper exploration of values might be worth considering as part of that process. Only 25% of respondents use GTCS standards when identifying values. Even from this we can see whilst this references values and the importance of them to the profession and schooling, this might not give any frameworks, philosophy, historic overview or further readings to support a deeper analysis and understanding of values. The same might be said for HGIOS.

Exactly half said they did not use any frameworks or other theories in their identification of values. It is especially striking that respondents strongly indicated they referred to policy documents to help identify school values but they also strongly indicated that they do not refer to values theory or research. This is concerning as it may limit teachers’ capacity to critically engage with values. It seems clear that we should not rely solely on policy documents to inform our understanding of educational values, especially when policy documents offer little or no in depth analysis.

We started our publication ‘Speaking of Values’ with an introduction to how the values on the Scottish Parliament mace came about. Those values are referenced in the HGIOS document along with an image of that mace: compassion, wisdom, justice and integrity. One might ask if these are indeed values. Furthermore, there is scope to consider how they were formed. The silversmith who made the mace chose the values by himself: he was given no briefing and there was no widespread consultation on what should appear on the mace. Donald Gillies questions whether this undermines the notion that Curriculum for Excellence is based on the principle of democracy.

Most striking perhaps was that only 56% think school values are ‘visible and active’. One teacher contacted us about the survey to say: ‘It would be interesting to talk values at our school- very strange imposed values (a number of them) they’re everywhere and blithely ignored by staff and pupils alike despite enormous managerial drive on them. Corporate values vs values and character of the school body.’

Our values should be an active, evolving exploration and we would hope this survey sparks further thinking and activity on this area which is ripe for more discussion. After all, we are promoting more Speaking Of Values.

Join the conversation online using #SpeakingOfValues

Character education and social justice

by Gary Walsh

As character education continues to gain influence in educational policy in the UK and elsewhere, it becomes more and more important to ensure it receives adequate critique. Having worked in the field of character education and studied the research base for a number of years, I have concluded that the legitimacy of traditional approaches to character education should be critically examined from a social justice perspective. The purpose of this post is to explain why I think this is the case. In doing so I hope this proves a useful point of reflection for any interested practitioners or researchers.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues make the grand and enticing claim that character is “the basis for human and societal flourishing“. This is somewhat alluring because it sounds empowering and inclusive: the implicit promise is that we can all flourish no matter who we are.

However, this claim underplays the role of social, political and economic contexts and the structural forces of inequality. Proponents of character education appear to concede that social context matters, but they conclude that it is more pragmatic to change individuals than it is to change society (Arthur et al, 2017). Far from being empowering and inclusive, this approach risks disempowerment: it obscures the role of democracy and distracts from social justice issues such as tackling poverty, food insecurity and health inequalities, while concealing the pernicious roles of power, privilege and prejudice. These are some of the REAL problems that prevent human flourishing – it is not about deficiencies in the moral character of children.

At the same time, the claim of character education is presented in moral terms, which implicitly suggests that such a forensic focus on the individual can be somehow morally justifiable. The irony is that this risks perpetuating what Zygmunt Bauman called Moral Blindness: the tendency to forget about the causes and impact of everyday suffering. As Nel Noddings points out:

The courage of a warrior may, for example, be so admired that members of the society do not think (or dare) to criticize war itself.” (Noddings 2012: 167)

The question needing asked here is whether it is legitimate to examine the moral character of individuals without also examining that of social arrangements. Unfortunately, any hope that the character education movement treats this question seriously may well be misplaced. Traditional character education offers little critique of the structural inequalities that erode the very values it purports to uphold. Nor does it explicitly recognise critical political analysis, activism or tackling the structural causes of inequality as examples of virtue or citizenship. It is also important to reflect on the fact that character education tends to gain appeal at times of economic crises or social unrest, and to ask why that might be the case. For example, in the UK, character education made a sudden return to educational policy in the wake of the London riots in 2011, where the resulting recommendations concentrated largely on fixing the moral characters of young people.

Character education teaches classical virtues such as honesty, gratitude and humility. This may sound at first like a reasonable endeavour, but a critical social justice perspective quickly reveals the concerning implications of this approach. 1 in 4 children in the UK are currently living in poverty – do they really need lessons in gratitude and humility? What and whose purposes are being served? The work of Nel Noddings raises the possibility that focusing on virtues such as honesty can result in children experiencing less caring relationships in the classroom. For instance, imagine a child lies to their teacher because they feel afraid or they want to hide something. If the teacher’s attention is focused on developing the child’s virtue of honesty, they could miss what might be really happening for that child.

Character education seeks to promote compassion by encouraging ‘service’ to others. Digging deeper into this reveals that service is framed as an apolitical, charitable ‘good deed’. To help understand why this is problematic, Westheimer and Kahne (2004) provide a useful framework to help us understand different kinds of citizens that education typically tries to produce. They refer to citizens who are a) personally responsible, b) participatory, and c) justice oriented. The authors illustrate the various kinds of citizen by theorising how each might respond to a humanitarian crisis that involves victims experiencing hunger:

“…if participatory citizens are organizing the food drive and personally responsible citizens are donating food, justice oriented citizens are asking why people are hungry and acting on what they discover.” (Westheimer and Kahne 2004: 4)

They find that personally responsible citizenship, typified by a character education approach, is the most common approach pursued by schools, while justice-oriented citizenship receives the least attention.

(Incidentally, the issue of using moralistic language with reference to food banks in the UK came into sharp focus recently when Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was severely criticised for saying that charitable donations to food banks “is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are”.)

This analysis provides some possible directions for a ‘socially just’ approach to character development. Such an approach could involve calling out the immorality and social violence of political decisions that leave people destitute. It could seek to support the ways in which people, relationships and communities can be nurtured, cared for and loved. It could draw on resilience research which demonstrates that resilience is not a character trait, but a developmental process that is strengthened by reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors. It could recognise the role of positive attachments and the impact of adverse childhood experiences. It could be based on politically hard-edged concepts such as human rights, social justice and participative democracy. It could draw on social theories such as Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach, Bourdieu’s Habitus & Cultural Capital, Fromm’s Social Character, integrative views of identity or ecological understandings of agency.

In other words, ‘character’ could be re-constructed as a dynamic concept that describes the qualities of people while also describing the relationship with our social world. If we are to ask ‘what kind of people’ the world needs, is it not incumbent on us to also ask ‘what kind of world’ people need? Unfortunately, character education has yet to make any notable moves in this direction. These theoretical possibilities are ignored in favour of something altogether more esoteric: Aristotelian virtue ethics. Herein lies the ideological rub. Aristotle endorsed slavery, describing slaves as living tools. While this can be brushed off as a trite objection or simply a ‘sign of the times’ in Ancient Greece, it is important to point out that Aristotle’s theory of a flourishing society depended on oppression, elitism and authoritarianism. Oppression was required at home too: it was the (superior) man’s job to instil character in the (inferior) woman and children. 

Does one person’s flourishing require another person’s suffering? The award-winning short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, is a powerful reflection on that very question and is well worth a read. Working towards social justice, in my view, involves a commitment to the idea that human flourishing is for all of us, not just a few of us. Aristotle seemed to have particular ideas about who should flourish and who should not. 2500 years later, this remains the battleground of what we now refer to as social justice.

It seems fair to ask, therefore, what the character education movement has to say about social justice, and whether character education assumes that injustice, inequality and oppression are inevitable (and therefore acceptable), given its philosophical antecedents. In response to such challenges (see Winton 2012 for a good example), proponents of character education refuse to work WITH such criticisms, trying instead to deflect them as mere myths. Is this lack of acknowledgement an adequate response? Surely, as in all educational efforts, self-critique and a commitment to the principle of ‘do no harm’ should prevail. 

At the very least, we should be guided by the available evidence. Simply put, there is no firm evidence to establish credibility for the claim that the possession of virtues is the basis of human flourishing. Neither is there firm evidence to say that traditional character education interventions improve the life outcomes of children and young people. There is good evidence, however, showing not only that character education has ‘no significant impact’ but that it can have detrimental impacts too (Social and Character Development Research Consortium, 2010).

The legitimacy of character education can and should be questioned on the grounds of efficacy and even moreso on the grounds of ideology. Social Justice education offers a narrative that is fundamentally different to that of character education in ways that are important to understand. It suggests that the ways in which we should seek to change ourselves for the better are not to be found by aiming to ‘be’ a certain way (virtuous or otherwise). The challenge of social justice involves deciding what we refuse to become – much like the ones who walk away from Omelas. It suggests that we change ourselves by changing the world around us. Perhaps this is a more worthy starting point for our attention and efforts.