CAIN: Issues - Education. Values in Education in Northern Ireland by Alan Smith and Alison Montgomery, 1997 (Chapter 5)

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Values in Education in Northern Ireland,
by Alan Smith and Alison Montgomery

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]

Text: Alan Smith and Alison Montgomery ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
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Chapter Five

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.

Extra-Curricular Activities

Teachers identified the potential for Music, Art and Drama to provide opportunities for pupils to express themselves through different mediums, 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 of competitiveness."

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.

School Assemblies

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.

School Policies

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.".

Pastoral Care

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.

While many 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,

"You 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 action.

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 that,

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 of leisure.

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 pupils.

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 that homework

  • 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."

  • Classrooms

    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.

  • Staffroom

    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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