From the Head of O’Connor House and Year 8 Co-ordinator
In 2004, the Howard government initiated a programme designed to ensure that all children in Australian Schools would be educated in a common set of agreed values — hence Values Education in Australian Schools was born. This $29.7 million commitment was always going to arouse contention by the mere fact that it seemed predicated on an assumption that schools were devoid of values before this programme. To some, this was nothing more than an expensive poster campaign, a mere list of character traits peddled to apparently values-free students in a values-free education system; to others it was yet another government imposed hoop for schools and educators to jump through. Now in 2011 it would seem that this values push has dropped off the political radar; the posters have come down from classroom walls and the discussion has faded. Where then does this leave values education and what role should schools play in the ethical and moral development of its students?
An examination of the then government’s 2005 document reveals nine core values which seem all-encompassing and which few would argue with. These include: care and compassion, doing your best, a ‘fair go’, freedom, honesty and trustworthiness, integrity, respect, responsibility, understanding, tolerance and inclusion (DEEWR, 2005). These words found their way into classrooms across Australia and were encapsulated beautifully with the words of George Eliot, “Character is Destiny”; the inference being that by learning and embracing these “Australian” values, we have the potential to develop and improve our character. As parents and educators, teaching values makes sense, but in many ways it raises the question of whether we should teach good character and how that might be possible.
The “slippery” nature of this question may go some way to explain why Mr Howard’s well-intentioned campaign lost momentum. As a society, we know what core unchanging values are important even though we perhaps struggle to quantify and qualify them. This is not to say that values education has disappeared or that values have lost meaning. However, the notion that values can be set out in a “one size fits all” instructional list or a ready-made package developed outside the school system is questionable. It can be argued that an effective student care programme is surely one which allows students to develop the cognitive awareness to adapt to situations; which creates a space where moral dilemmas can be posed and values clarified. Teaching a list of desired values through direct and didactic instruction is far less effective than allowing students to make decisions and evaluate solutions through case study examples to which they can relate (Thornton, 2004). With 136 years of tradition and values, the cultural heritage of Brisbane Girls Grammar School provides a strong foundation for teaching our students about important and unchanging core values. Embedded within our curricula and co-curricular programmes are opportunities which allow students to put these values into practice and to see the impact of values on the future.
Although student care and values education are integral to the fabric of this School our students are also engaged in an explicitly structured Ethics Programme which is designed to support these young women as they navigate through each phase of life. It is specifically designed to foster the wellbeing of students at each year level by addressing the issues that are relevant to their age and circumstances. Dealing with these important issues, the Year 8 Ethics Programme reflects the premise that an individual’s wellbeing is intrinsically linked with group belonging. While this is important at every stage of development, it is particularly pertinent to Year 8 students where it is clear that their “connectedness” within the School community is a major determinant of their happiness and success. All four units of the Year 8 Ethics Programme incorporate aspects of the internationally renowned FRIENDS program which focuses on promoting resilience and mental health. The Term I focus on “Connections” encompasses activities which require each student to reflect upon notions of wellbeing in an individual and group context. They are encouraged to explore their own beliefs and values to assist them to make meaning of their reality in a variety of ways, by providing them with the opportunity to view themselves as a part of the Brisbane Girls Grammar School and their House communities. A particular focus is on friendships and the skills required to maintain good friendships. The unit highlights and develops the values of empathy and toleration of difference and students are guided through the process of “joining in” especially in the new school environment. By this stage in the term, the Year 8s are already able to draw upon their own experiences of joining co-curricular teams and clubs and from their attendance at their House Party and participation in the Interhouse Volleyball and Swimming competitions.
Current research supports what we at Girls Grammar have always believed to be true regarding the importance and value of student care programmes (Payton, 2008). To promote our students success in life we must provide a broad, balanced education that both ensures their mastery of basic academic skills but perhaps, more importantly, the skills for becoming responsible and ethical women. The Ethics Programme at Brisbane Girls Grammar School is designed to promote social, emotional and academic engagement and to have far-reaching benefits beyond the school walls. From a Head of House perspective, the benefits of these lessons are obvious and support current research. Payton suggests “more positive social behaviours, fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress, and better grades and achievement test scores” are all directly related to such programmes (2008, p.3).
“Students who appraise themselves and their abilities realistically (self-awareness), regulate their feelings and behaviours appropriately (self-management), interpret social cues accurately (social awareness), resolve interpersonal conflicts effectively (relationship skills), and make good decisions about daily challenges (responsible decision making) are headed on a pathway toward success in school and later life.” (Payton, 2008, p.5)
Certainly, as we continue in the School’s aspiration and intent to provide a foundation for our young women to “contribute confidently to their world with wisdom, imagination and integrity”, we will continue to value the teaching of Ethics at Brisbane Girls Grammar School.
Mrs L Harvey
Langfield, P. (2011, February 26) School’s in for Self-help. The Australian, Weekend Professional, p9.
Payton, J. et al. (2008) The Positive Impact of Social and Emotional Learning for Kindergarten to Eight-Grade students: Findings from Three Scientific Reviews. Chicago: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
Values Education for Australian Schooling (2005) Australian Government: Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). Retrieved March 9, 2011, from http://www.curriculum.edu.au/values/default.asp?id=14515
Thornton, N. (2004) Measuring Values in Education. A research project sponsored by Australian College of Educators (ACE), Queensland Branch.