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Values in Education in Northern Ireland,
by Alan Smith and Alison Montgomery
Text: Alan Smith and Alison Montgomery ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change
Values and the Informal Curriculum
For the purposes of this chapter, the Informal Curriculum is defined
as "areas and aspects of school life located outside of the
classroom." Through this research, the term 'Informal Curriculum'
pertained to a range of areas and aspects of school life including
extra-curricular activities, school trips, pastoral care and discipline
policies, and various domains of the school environment, such
as the staffroom and playground. In this section, elements of
the Informal Curriculum will be considered in the light of the
values which were seen to underpin these areas of school life.
Teachers identified the potential for Music, Art
and Drama to provide opportunities for pupils to express themselves through
respect and understand each other better, and generate a sense
of "cohesion, responsibility and even family"
in the school. They also drew attention to the Public Relations (PR) function
of these subjects.
Teachers frequently commented,
how Music, Drama, Media Studies, PE and Art were most valued once
they had been, "taken out of their subject pocket in the
curriculum and transformed into plays, concerts and musical shows."
All teachers in the Creative and Expressive area of study noted
the changing emphasis and approach to Music and Drama when a school
show or open day was approaching, commenting that "senior
management couldn't do enough to arrange teacher cover, and access
to the assembly hall." Music and Drama teachers made
many references to the PR aspects of their subjects and even of
their teaching roles when the school was seeking to "sell
itself" to prospective parents and pupils, the Inspectorate
or members of the community. Some mused over the fact that the
very subjects which were projected as part of PR were those which received
least emphasis and were apparently least valued during school time.
School performance on the rugby field or hockey pitch was
also recognised as an important factor in determining its status to the
outside community. Teachers spoke of the subtle and
direct pressures they experienced from head teachers to "get
a good result on Saturday" and to ensure that the school
projected a good image to its rivals. Teachers frequently referred
to the dichotomy which existed in their attempts to accentuate
a less competitive side to sports in the school, and the demands
to send a team onto a pitch against an opposing school team, "out
for the kill." Several school policies addressed this
by advocating the cultivation of an "appropriate degree
The pressure on schools to project a positive and successful image
was perceived to require a concerted effort from teachers in the
Creative and Expressive area, though there was some concern that
this could prove detrimental to the preparation and delivery of
the programmes of study. On a visit to a probationary music teacher,
a Board advisor related how she discovered the teacher was experiencing
problems finding time to plan and actually teach lessons, because
she was spending so much time with the school choir and orchestra
rehearsing for the school prize distribution, Open day and Christmas
concert. Other teachers with several years of experience commented
that they also experienced problems certain times of the year,
"trying to get everything done."
The status of the Creative and Expressive subjects was not improved
by their assignation to the extra-curricular dimension
in some schools. Teachers commented that this simply confirmed
in some senior teachers and "Department" (DENI) minds,
that these presented pupils with opportunities "to relax"
or at best to develop some "leisure skills."
A few language teachers felt that French, Spanish and German were
also part of the "leisure skills" group.
The type of sport played in schools was also perceived by some
teachers to carry particular values. Some controlled and voluntary
grammars were defined as the "rugby" schools and the
"traditional" schools which were "still
clinging to the old ethos of developing the brilliant."
Such schools were also perceived as being very competitive, and
in some cases "Victorian", in their emphasis on rugby,
hockey, rowing and cross-country and some were still seen to be
contemptuous of soccer, basketball and some leisure centre activities.
Several teachers suggested these were "more suitable"
for secondary schools. (Unfortunately, it was not possible
during the fieldwork to determine the accuracy of this perception).
Sports such as gaelic football, hurley and camogie were in most
instances, strongly associated with maintained schools, through
some teachers noted that a few maintained grammars were engaging
in "the rugby culture." Several teachers commented
that it was difficult to "throw off the political, religious
and even sectarian badges" on these sports.
In positive terms, extra-curricular activities were seen to present
opportunities for collaboration between departments and individual
teachers. Respondents commented how staff relations and collegiality
improved remarkably during preparations for a school play or show,
and how once established, links and partnerships could continue
and had the potential to generate more cross-curricular projects.
As one teacher remarked,
"once you get to work with some
of the others, you find they're actually alright...there are also
some opportunities to work together."
Educational Visits and Field Trips
School trips, outings and educational visits are organised for a variety of purposes.
Teachers provided examples where these arose through
EMU projects, Music, the Arts, Geography and Environment
projects. Trips such as these were recognised
as educationally and socially valuable by the majority of teachers.
Geography, Music and History teachers commented that taking children
out of school and "into the world outside" made
certain issues "come alive" in a way which was not
possible within the classroom.
Studies of the environment were particularly difficult to recreate
realistically in class, and teachers commented that there was
no substitute for the real experience of the seashore, peatland,
or forest. Several primary teachers related how visits to various
environments and educational places were particularly beneficial
to children from deprived backgrounds, who were otherwise not
likely to gain such experiences.
Despite the positive experiences and outcomes associated with
school trips, teachers frequently mentioned the difficulties and
complexities of arranging even an afternoon away from school.
Taking a group of pupils out of school, required transport, additional
teacher assistance, teacher cover (in post-primary schools), insurance,
parental permission, funding, assuming extra responsibility, extra
supervision and, according to all teachers, "energy"
Many respondents said that they had been discouraged from
organising trips and visits because of the "hassle"
and "extra work" and sometimes because of a "lack
of support" from other staff members. Attempts to undertake
visits to special schools and neighbouring schools as part of
EMU had sometimes been hindered by the need for extra assistance,
parental concern, and the cost of insurance. One teacher summarised
the general feeling of teachers,
You know it's all worth
it when you get them out there, but the hassle of it all does
put you off a bit.
Some attention was given to the format and purpose of school assemblies.
Teachers in many schools felt there had been some perceptible
changes in the content and scheduling of assemblies. Schools by
and large had reduced the number of whole school assemblies, and
in several cases restricted them to a series of announcements,
omitting any type of "worship." The head teacher and
his or her religious views was considered strongly influential
in the structure and delivery of assemblies. Most teachers discussed
the relevance and value of holding assembly, and the nature of
the messages which they felt were conveyed. Most teachers agreed
that a weekly or bi-weekly assembly with a reading or prayer and
hymn was acceptable. Some thought the whole concept of school
worship was "rather outdated" and the practice
of "imposed" worship "ethically incorrect".
A few RE teachers in controlled post-primary schools felt it was
less than adequate, and that the worship element was not always
approached in "an appropriate manner." Other
RE teachers felt it was a valuable opportunity for pupils who
might otherwise never experience church worship, to be exposed
to some form of collective worship. Whatever their religious outlook,
however teachers felt it provided a valuable opportunity to bring
the whole school together and to promote some degree of cohesion
and a sense of group identity.
A review of schools' policies provided an invaluable insight into
the values schools professed to hold, and also what they considered
"valuable" in their work of teaching, disciplining and
caring for children and young people.
School policies were a major topic of discussions, particularly
with senior management and head teachers. During the course of
the fieldwork, many schools were in the process of completing
pastoral care policies, discipline policies, and school statements
regarding behaviour, ethos, school rules and homework. Policies
stated a broad and diverse range of aims and objectives, too numerous
to list. These related to the promotion and development of the
pupils' physical, personal, inter-personal, moral, social, emotional,
spiritual, mental, intellectual, aesthetic and cultural well-being.
The rhetoric of policy statements laid great emphasis on "encouraging"
"facilitating", "developing", "respecting",
"considering", "supporting", "celebrating"
and "valuing" the individuals, relationships, processes,
methods, structures and environments within the school.
When asked to comment on pastoral care or discipline within a
school, senior managers, on many occasions quoted or read substantial
extracts from their policies, proudly commenting on the amount
of effort and time given to discussing and formulating these policies.
Several head teachers commented that it was important to"bring
the staff along with you," though they sometimes less
forthcoming in their explanations of how this was actually achieved.
Other teachers indicated that whole staff consultation was not
as widespread as perhaps had been suggested, and that in many
cases senior management, and perhaps Year Heads or Tutors, drafted
a policy on which staff were then invited to comment. Some teachers
admitted they were reluctant to offer comments (especially in
larger schools) as"you can come across as a bit of a troublemaker
if you say too much" and "if it's got as far
as the teachers, there's not much chance of any changing anything.".
These attitudes gave the impression that in some schools, policies
are imposed on teachers, rather than developed through discussion
and collaboration. Several head teachers commented on the importance of
"bring the staff along with you", but were less forthcoming in explaining how
this was achieved in practice. Whatever approach is
adopted in drafting a school policy, there appeared to be considerable
consensus that, "the aims are attainable only through the full, unbroken
co-operation of parents, pupils and teachers.".
The pervasive nature of pastoral care was highlighted
in many discussions with Head Teachers and other senior managers.
The provision of a framework which promotes social, emotional
and moral development was widely acknowledged as an important,
and indeed essential part of the school's role.
Pastoral care policies set out a range of strategies and objectives,
relating to the well-being of the "whole child."
Common to many of these policies was the development of the "full
potential of each child", a commitment to helping each
child to acquire self-discipline and a sense of responsibility
and the development of each child's awareness of herself, others
and her environment. Some policies focused on specific values,
outlining aims to "instil respect for the religious and
moral values of the different cultures in our society" and
to "understand another's viewpoint and the principles,
beliefs and values which underlie it."
A few schools
had adopted a mechanism for considering pastoral care and the
"whole child" focusing on various parts of the
whole self, namely the bodily self, sexual self, social self,
vocational self, and moral self. Teachers felt that this approach
facilitated a more in-depth and individualised approach to the
consideration of pupils pastoral care and development.
Many members of senior management suggested that the values promoted
by teachers through pastoral care had not radically changed over
the years. They still shared a concern for the individual child,
for their personal and social development, and an ability to progress,
achieve, communicate and integrate with others. What senior management
and teachers themselves felt had changed was the growing expectation
that teachers would deal with and assume responsibility for an
ever-expanding range of pastoral issues.
Many teachers felt there
were difficulties in obtaining a widely acceptable and workable
definition of pastoral care. Teachers spoke of the problems surrounding
the identification and implementation of a suitable approach,
and the need to achieve consensus and consistency.
schools had a well-defined structure and procedure for pastoral
care administered by specific members of staff, such as year heads
and pastoral tutors, a great number of teachers still expressed
some concern and anxiety about their own roles in this area. A
range of issues were raised in relation to this, including;
- a concern over the growing number and of increasingly serious
issues associated with contemporary 20th century living which
were brought into the school and classroom, e.g. drugs, violence,
physical and sexual abuse;
- a feeling that parents and wider society are content to"offload"
such problems and associated issues along with the accompanying
stresses onto teachers;
- considerable anxiety over teachers lack of confidence and
training to confront these and other similar issues;
- a concern that teachers may have to clarify and defend their
own attitudes, beliefs and values, many of which they feared may
be quite contrary to those of their pupils;
- a fear of the pressures of responsibility and accountability
to parents, school and beyond;
- discomfort with the expanding nature of the non-teaching role.
Discipline in Schools
In a large number of schools, pastoral care and discipline policies
were formulated as one, thereby suggesting that one had implications
for the other and an intention that the objectives should be perceived
and realised simultaneously. Teachers suggested that, for example,
behavioural problems often originated back to a problem with learning
in the classroom or problems with a family member, or a situation
at home. Several head explained felt that pastoral care and discipline
"go hand in hand."
Discipline systems were clearly an important institution in schools
and senior managers frequently commented that it was imperative
for teachers and pupils to fully understand and recognise the
framework and boundaries of the school discipline system. Equally
important was the teachers' commitment to, and consistency in
imposing sanctions for a variety of misdemeanours. In a number
of policies, misbehaviour and offences had been categorised into
degrees of minor, serious and gross misconduct. These ranged from
talking in class to various types of "horseplay" to
physical assault on a pupil or member of staff. It was interesting
to note, that while only a comparatively small number of policies
were reviewed, there was a strong consensus in their definition
of what constituted these various degrees of indiscipline. However, in
conversations with individual teachers, what constituted a minor or
serious offence was not always so readily defineable.
A number of responses revealed a reluctance or disinterest in the application
od discipline policy. A number
of teachers admitted that it "is very tedious telling
the same fellow off for the same thing over and over," so
they had "just ignored him or given up". Others
argued that there was little point in referring discipline matters
to a more senior member of staff as "they can't be bothered",
"won't do anything anyway" or are "too busy
with their paperwork."
Some teachers made brief reference to the procedures established
in their discipline policies for dealing with "that small
trouble-making minority". Most revealed that permanent
removal or expulsion was comparatively rare and also difficult
to instigate. One secondary school teacher statted,
can't get rid of them now - you're stuck with them... the policy
now is to help them deal with things... in school ... Well, you're
wasting your time if you ask me....boys like that never change."
Teachers debated the advantages and disadvantages of suspending
pupils, isolation from their peers and removal from the classroom. The
majority felt that a brief period of suspension could be beneficial,
allowing time for an unpleasant incident to be dealt with more
sensitively, and for a volatile situation to be calmed. Teachers
also referred to school policies for reintegrating a pupil, and
the continuing surveillance of potentially explosive situations.
Suspension was perceived as giving a pupil time and space to consider
his actions and to renegotiate his place in the school community.
Some teachers commented that it was also the "only way
to get the parents involved," and to embark on a home-school
strategy for dealing with a pupil. Most teachers commented that
in their schools, removal in any form, from a classroom was emphasised
as a last resort, and in a few it was not an option at all. While
they felt it was important to provide support for the offender
by not ejecting him or her from the class or school community,
they did argue there were situations and pupils for whom this
was the most effective, or indeed the only possible course of
Many teachers made reference to probationary teachers and their
"overconcern" with discipline issues. Probationary
teachers themselves admitted anxieties about "establishing
themselves", and managing to "keep things under control."
In order to promote the idea of partnership in discipline between
teachers and pupils, contracts had been introduced in some schools.
When new pupils arrived at these schools, they were asked to sign
a contract of agreement which stated their understanding of, agreement
with and intention to respect and obey school rules. Teachers
felt this was an "mature and adult way of securing some
commitment and order." Teachers commented that the partnership
approach also relied heavily on parents and their commitment to
the school's discipline policy. They gave a variety of examples
where parents had been involved successfully in resolving a pupil's
behavioural and attitudinal problems. The implementation of various
approaches (report cards, letters from principals, home and school
visits and school tribunals) had all been explored as possible approaches.
Teachers stated that despite the guidelines establised by
the school regarding inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour,
and corresponding sanctions, discipline was ostensibly "down
to the individual". Many spoke of developing their own
sanctions in the classroom, in some cases, "regardless
of what goes on in the rest of the school", and others
commented on the leniency of their school discipline code, complaining
No matter what they say or do, you can't isolate
them or remove them from the class - it's just not realistic...
and they know your hands are tied...some of them play on it.
Statements of School Values
A number of statements of school aims were examined. These revealed a
considerable degree concerning their commitment to the promotion of;
- responsible, considerate behaviour;
- a disciplined and caring atmosphere;
- willingness and co-operation;
- a sense of belonging and loyalty;
- the pursuit of academic excellence balanced by an appreciation
In Special schools, pupils were expected as far as was possible
to abide by a defined set of school rules. One teacher outlined that
pupils were expected to,
- obey simple rules;
- develop a sense of responsibility and truthfulness;
- make simple choices;
- have respect for others and property;
- learn to share, and
- assume personal responsibility for actions.
Most of the policies examined were based on broadly Christian principles,
though some (particularly maintained schools)
made this commitment rather more explicit in their aims;, for example
statements that the school is concerned with,
- above all, deepening Christian faith and affirming its practice;
- bringing each young person closer to God;
- advocating a powerful and benign corporate life in which values
and attitudes concerning relationships between individuals and
groups are lived out and not merely advocated (CCMS 'Towards a
whole school policy for Catholic Schools');
- the development of a strong sense of community and an atmosphere
enlivened by the Gospel values of freedom and charity (Gravissimum
Educationis, The Vatican Council, p.34).
Integrated schools often place a strong emphasis on community
both within and outside the school. There was also a strong thrust
towards whole child development in the context of whole school
development, along with a recognition that "what is best
for the school must be best for every pupil." Perhaps
because many of the integrated schools in Northern Ireland are
recently established, teachers spoke of a need for much co-operation
and cohesion between staff, pupils and parents, in order to make
progress and "to get ourselves established and recognised."
Some of the aims were to;
- to provide a happy, caring school;
- to remember that children come first, and;
- to hope, work, and pray for greater social harmony in NI.
Special school policies placed considerable emphasis on the affirmation
and value of all pupils and their respective strengths and weaknesses.
Respect and understanding were considered paramount to the development
of a positive atmosphere and thriving school environment. They
also drew attention to the importance of encouraging pupils to
attempt new activities, "to have a go", and in
doing so, to develop accurate perceptions of their abilities,
and realistic expectations for their futures. Teachers made reference
to the vital links and partnerships between teaching staff, therapists,
parents, transport drivers and social services, in securing the
provision of adequate and appropriate care and education for the
Homework policies were built into many school policies, giving
clear guidelines to pupils and parents of the objectives of the
policy and the expectations of the school regarding pupils' homework.
Teachers outlined their perceptions of the values of homework, suggesting
- encourages pupils to establish a quiet place to study;
- provides opportunities for parents to be involved
in a child's progress;
- carries on the learning process at home;
- allows pupils to consolidate class work;
- helps pupils to establish self-discipline in their study.
Many of the school policies which were examined focused on
the "totality of the learning experiences" and
"whole child development". While many teachers
acknowledged and pledged their support of these aims, they admitted
that there was often a considerable gulf between the rhetoric
of the policies, and the realisation of this in the daily school
routine. Teachers explained that they experienced difficulties
"making it all concrete", and "turning
the theory of school policies into practice." A few teachers
also thought that those who drafted the policies were removed
from daily classroom practice,
Part of the problem is that the developers of
this policy are set up there in their Ivory tower and... the reality
down here is actually a bit different.
The Physical Environment of the School
Teachers and pupils' perceptions of
various aspects of the physical environment, were considered to be
further "values indicators" by many respondents.
They described a number of locations in their school, in terms of
the messages which they communicated about the overall values and
image of the school.
Teachers commented on the internal and external environment, the use of colour,
light, space and texture throughout their schools, and the potential
effects of these on teaching and learning experiences. The general
state of repair of classrooms, (including decor, furniture and
light), was a significant contributory factor to the nature of
many teachers' contentment, motivation, innovation and commitment.
It definitely has an effect on my motivation - sometimes
more than others....there are days when I just can't face that
room - its so dark and drab.
Some others said that they
hardly noticed or thought about the state of their classrooms,
but when asked to consider them, some remarked that they were"not
very inspiring", "they could do with a lick of paint",
and perhaps more seriously;"my classroom walls just
contribute to the whole feeling of imprisonment."
Primary school classrooms were much more likely to be bright and
colourful, decorated in many cases with displays of children's
work. Several teachers drew a distinction between primary and
post-primary classrooms, commenting on the lack of colour in many
post-primary classrooms and comparatively fewer classroom displays
of pupils' work. Discussions centred around the positive and negative
effects of having pupils' work on show and why this might have
been perceived as less important at post-primary level. This issue
is also explored in the Hidden Curriculum.
Teachers in Special schools underlined the importance of a colourful,
interesting and stimulating environment especially for children
with very severe learning difficulties. The provision and use
of space, textures, light and colour were perceived as an integral
part of the learning and development process, though teachers
also acknowledged the positive and stimulating effects it had
on their own teaching. Sensory gardens and outdoor activities
were also described as providing important stimulation.
The Staffroom was described in various ways, from a" haven
of peace" to a corner of "disharmony and disinterest."
Staffrooms clearly seemed to serve different purposes in different
schools. Some teachers saw it as a place for respite, and for
"recharging their batteries, " a friendly, relaxed,
supportive and comfortable space, which in some schools was implicitly
understood as "out of bounds" to the Head teacher and/or
senior management. In other schools the atmosphere was unfriendly,
uncommunicative and uncomfortable, and teachers commented that
they sought out "other lunchtime options, [or] company".
Some staffrooms were used more as preparation and "marking"
rooms, and others were located so far from teachers' classrooms
that "it takes half of lunchtime getting there!"
The sort of reception which visitors to the staffroom receive was also
perceived to be an indicator of the values and atmosphere which pertain to the school.
- Reception Areas
Teachers often commented on the impressions which entrance areas and the school
reception convey to visitors.
The provision of a seating area, the display of pupils' work, clearly placed
signs and directions and directions and the type of atmosphere experienced
on arrival were all perceived to
be indicative of image and school values. Several teachers
thought that this reflected the head teachers' values more accurately,
as in their schools, s/he was usually instrumental in making the
decisions regarding this environment.
- The Playground
Teachers were asked to comment on the physical layout of playgrounds
and the use of these spaces. A large number of teachers admitted they
had not given the matter much consideration, while others strongly
advocated changes in play area arrangements or felt that the present
playgrounds were adequate and that any improvements "would
only attract vandals". A few teachers mentioned that their
schools had undertaken environmental projects which had included pupil
participation in the redesign of their playground.
They explained how time spent in the playground was valuable in
providing opportunities for play, games, interaction and teamwork,
and these schools felt that pupils should be proud of their playground
and "claim some ownership of it". Grassy areas
and gardens had also been planned in some schools by pupils. Other teachers
pointed out however, that pupils were often then prohibited from
using these. One teacher commented how pupils in her school had
carefully designed and planted a small flower garden, but that
on completion, the garden was declared "out of bounds."
Many teachers, particularly in post-primary schools were fairly
unaware of what occurred in the playground, beyond games of football,
and a few commented that "that's the best way...what happens
out there should stay out there." There was a sense that
the playground was "out of bounds" for teachers, that
it was the "children's domain" , and that it
was really down to the pupils and lunchtime supervisors to organise
and control what went on. Several primary schools were undertaking
planned lunchtime activities of games and "environmental
play" and others had drawn up a "booking" sheet,
for playground games, "so that the boys and their football
don't take over."
- The Library
Teachers reported a decline in
the use of school libraries for reading purposes and a diminishing
interest amongst pupils in reading. A considerable number of post-primary
teachers indicated that the school library had been "absorbed
into an English teachers' classroom," or "shoved
into a storeroom." The school library was reported to serve a variety of purposes,
including use an additional classroom, a sixth form study, a teachers'
marking room, a video and television room and a musical instrument
store. In many cases, using the library for reading purposes was
an uncommon activity. Teachers recognised that such anomalous use of school
libraries communicated implicit messages to pupils such as the value placed on reading
and the use of books in relation to computers and the establishment of Information Technology
suites. Comments were also made about the lack of emphasis on independent reading and the
demise of reading for pleasure as the immediacy and
accessibility of computer software increases.
Teachers expressed genuine surprise at the abundance of opportunities
within the informal Curriculum for the transmission and discussion
of values. Clearly, the provision and content of pastoral care
policies and school value statements were perceived as potentially
the most explicit communications of a school's values. However,
teachers were also quick to recognise that the practices underpinned
by such policies do not always accurately resemble the original
objectives and intentions of the policies, and some of the reasons
for this were outlined above. The nature of the physical environment of the school
was also seen to transmit sometimes quite subtle messages about values.
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