Does Education Have a Role in Addressing the Current Political and Economic Chaos?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 7 October 2022
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Role of Education; Academic Boundaries

The last few weeks have been worrying for us all in terms of our financial security and the stability of the everyday lifestyles that we have taken so much for granted for so long. Throughout the media coverage of the late Queen’s funeral there was unusually much discussion and praise for the values by which she lived and the example she gave.

The measure of a successful government has traditionally been the ability to keep the lights on and the trains running, but over the summer the values which elected officials display in office has also become appreciated as important. In these uncertain times when priorities have to be rethought, the values which we as a society hold are revealed and, for example, placing the needs of the more disadvantaged above the wealthy is being debated. It is the expectation of parents, for schools to take on the role of teaching pupils to differentiate between right and wrong and become positive contributors to society. How far should schools go therefore in adding to the innate values that pupils are born with and the social and cultural values learned from parents? Can lessons in the classroom avoid discussion of the issues of the day and their impact on us all?

American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, who specialized in research on moral education and reasoning, and was best known for his theory of stages of moral development, believed children needed to be in an environment that allowed for open and public discussion of day-to-day conflicts and problems to develop their moral reasoning ability. As a former geography teacher, I remember for example, lessons on global warming which explored questions on how our lifestyles and human selfishness could be a threat to the future of the planet. There are challenges for teachers in finding a carefully neutral position on sensitive political issues when they arise in the classroom and sometimes that is just not possible. Here in Northern Ireland faith- based schools are very much the norm and Christian values are accepted as the standard against which we measure how we act and relate to others. Reflecting these values in teaching and learning is something which our schools hold dear and is an important part of who we are.

Research into values education in Northern Ireland is limited, but one study which interviewed teachers on the subject, found a reluctance to move beyond the academic boundaries of their subject or curriculum focus and explicitly pass on clearly defined moral value positions. They mostly agreed that care needed to be taken to avoid bias or any suggestion of indoctrination. While the statutory basis for the Northern Ireland Curriculum places an “explicit emphasis on physical, moral, spiritual and cultural development - areas which are widely recognised as dominant characteristics of values education”, there is no obligation on schools to timetable any kind of values or moral education or to explore the conceptual dimensions of morals or values. There would be broad agreement however that the informal curriculum of outreach activities, charity work and pastoral care in our schools sends a strong message to pupils about social responsibility and how a caring society should operate.

The quality of teaching and learning in the values domain remains largely dependent on the teacher and school in question.” 

“Most teachers in the area of Environment and Society, referred to the "power" which resides with teachers to choose which topics to study. Some commented on the extent to which a teacher could distort situations and events. Most agreed that while very few teachers set out to deliberately indoctrinate pupils or promote propaganda in their teaching, teachers should be aware of the extent to which their teaching methods or selection of resources may introduce an issue from a particular perspective or bias. According to some it is difficult not to do this. The overriding message however was the need for teachers to be ever conscious of how they present information and what they perceive their pupils to understand by it.” 

CAIN: Issues - Education. Values in Education in Northern Ireland by Alan Smith and Alison Montgomery, 1997 (Chapter 4) (


The management of our national economy in terms of public spending on the health service, social care and education also reveals the values which guide political decisions and there are definitely battles on those fronts ahead. The evidence from the recent pandemic restrictions is mixed in terms of how willing people are to give up personal freedoms to help everyone. Is it therefore the role of schools to ensure that pupils leave with the ability to understand the issues which will confront them as they move into adult life and work so they can decide for themselves on the moral and ethical choices they will have to make?

In our new globalised world, the list of shared problems grows by the day, topped by global warming related extreme weather events, wars and fossil fuel supplies, uncontrolled migrations and of course the covid pandemic. We should really not be as shocked and surprised by these global issues as we seem to have been, as they have all been predicted and continually flagged up to us. Occasionally wise voices break through our apathy like Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough, and we glimpse the hard choices ahead. In an age of “fake news” and rampant conspiracy theories on social media it is surely more important than ever to give our young people the knowledge and critical thinking skills to navigate their way through these issues for themselves

An interesting new dimension to the current cost of living crisis is that we are being forced to question whether our lifestyle expectations based on cheap energy are both harmful to the planet and unsustainable economically. We may find that as with the pandemic experience, there are other ways to live and work and that we must be more conscious of how a governments economic and social policies are prioritised.

This article is correct at 07/10/2022

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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