Moralising… demoralising: the fight over personal and social education

Nagged once more by her computer, leading journalist Melanie Phillips checked her email.  The inbox was full again; an unprecedented influx, and all caused by one Sunday Times column that week (Phillips, January 2000).  The theme was ‘Britain is quietly turning into a drug culture’.

Feedback in the following Sunday’s letters page was numerically balanced, two for and two against.  In contrast Melanie’s inbox had at first been flooded with supportive mail from professional and lay sources alike, but as the week ran on the antagonism quotient rose, with one peculiar characteristic – an uncanny similarity in the phrasing in many letters ………Phillips took a broad view of the scene – unavoidable if one is to have any chance of reaching a balanced measure of this convoluted subject.  Parents, police, politicians, pushers, promoters of law relaxation – all these and more were addressed.  But of all the sectors to come under the author’s microscope, the one which provoked the most anguished outcry in the subsequent Letters page was, as might have been expected, education.

Phillips voiced the concerns of many professional observers of the drug education when she addressed the

‘…false claim that there is such a thing as responsible and safe drug-taking.  This belief has taken firm hold in Britain and is behind the shift that has taken place from prevention to ‘‘harm reduction’’. Clearly, there’s a place for harm reduction in treating individual addicts; but the idea that drug-taking can be made safe is utterly wrong.  There’s no such thing as a harm-free drug.  Yet drug ‘education’ is all about telling the young how to take drugs ‘safely’. Such classroom materials normalise and encourage drug use, while providing minimal information on harm …’

In response, one letter (Towe, 2000) spoke of how drug education ‘… far from telling them ‘how to take drugs safely’ … focuses on encouraging them to make responsible choices’  The letter went on to deny having ‘… given up the struggle and (thus) … being content to ‘normalise’ drug use among young people …’; an assertion which the writer found ‘… deeply demoralising to the many conscientious teachers and youth workers who deal with this issue on a daily basis.  (emphases added).

This exchange goes to the heart of the conflict around drug education, and thence the wider subject of drug prevention, not just in Britain but in several countries.  There is, in truth, a war about the ‘war on drugs’ – how should it be conducted and with what goals.  In this context the letter reacting to Melanie Phillips article is more revealing than perhaps the writer intended.

The Drug Education Forum, of which the letter writer is the current Chair, started out with a mission statement mirroring the National Drug Strategy, in seeking to develop young people’s skills and attitudes so that they ‘… can make informed decisions to resist drug misuse …’ (emphasis added).  But by some two years later – in mid 1997 – the mission statement was modified, by deleting the last four words (as emphasised above).

To the casual observer, or even the less than awake worker in the field, this might seem an innocuous change.  Far from it; this change meant that drug education should now serve any decision – to avoid drugs, or to use them.  Indeed, as the Forum has subsequently said, they would expect education to support ‘… the values inherent in informed choices …’ including ‘…the choice to use drugs …’ by giving ‘… information about ways they can do this as safely as possible …’ (emphases added).  Two years before this change in the Forum’s stance The Times (1995) ran an Editorial Comment which accurately anticipated this kind of move:

‘… One difficulty (in schools) has been that the message has been compromised by relativism and moral confusion: teachers, reflecting the wider debate, have linked drugs with alcohol, and suggested that both are a matter of personal choice.  Many of the drugs advisors resist the idea that they should label any activity as morally wrong even if it involves breaking the law.’

So, who speaks the truth?  Is education firmly set on preventing drug use, or is it in the thrall of libertarian ideologues?  One might first have to identify what truth is. One suggestion; cynical, perhaps, but in itself having the ring of truth, is that

‘Truth may be defined as that which is ultimately satisfying to believe’.

Both parties would, by this measure, claim to be guardians of  ‘the truth’;  that they alone hold the moral high ground.  Hence the current internecine conflict in at least the advisory levels of the education field.  Meanwhile down at the coal-face, Towe’s assertion that teachers and youth workers all ‘deal with this issue on a daily basis’ is a world away from the experience of this writer.  Many do not ‘deal’, nor even wish to deal with this ‘hot potato’ at all.  Youth workers may well encounter it more often, but their circle of youth contacts is small in comparison with the total school population, and there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that youth club patrons have a disproportionately higher prevalence of drug misuse amongst their numbers.

There is no doubt this is a complex and emotive subject; the conflict around drug education in part reflects this, but in part drug education’s philosophical sectarianism adds to the very problem it was conceived to address (Stoker, 1999).  It is a key negative factor in the performance of prevention in Britain (and some other countries).  It is possible to observe certain patterns in this which hint at the reasons for the conflict.  Some are ‘self – based’, such as turf protection, fears for job security, and innate hostility to ‘outsiders’; the current situation with the DARE (UK) programme – which utilises purpose-trained police officers in primary schools – illustrates this point. (Stoker, A: 1999)  Life Education Centres (Kaplin, 1997), which uses ‘Educators’ generates somewhat less hostility in this respect, insofar as Educators are perceived as being ‘of the teaching tribe’, though there can still be concern at the arrival on site of skilled outsiders, and this can sometimes foster criticism.  But a driving force which arguably exceeds all these other motivations is educational philosophy, capable of producing conflict of a deep and damaging nature.  The struggle between educational philosophies and their interrelation with societal cultures cannot be fully explored in a brief paper such as this; it would certainly consume several doctoral theses on its own.  But one can attempt a summary…

Looking at a wider stage than the immediate confines of drug misusing behaviour, external factors relevant to moral development (or decline) have played a major part in affecting what happens within as well as outside the school gates.   There has, in general terms, been an emancipation and empowerment of the young, plus a great increase in their disposable income, at the same time as a disempowerment of teachers and other authority figures.   Parents have likewise seen their powers eroded and, when it comes to subjects such as sex and drugs, they perceive themselves to be inhibited or – in extremis – disqualified from comment or control by ignorance of the details, the jargon and their (arguable) lack of credible experience in today’s scene.   At the same time factors such as the emergence of the ‘Me Society’ (not wholly Thatcher’s fault!), and the ‘If It Feels Good, Do It’ or ‘Do Your Own Thing’ mantras, combine with what social psychologists call ‘Rising Expectations in Post-Industrial Society’ and the cult of ‘Personal Rights’ – including the ‘Right to Be Happy’.   Factors such as the above may also, in some respects, be applied to adults, and may be viewed as contributing to the breakdown of the nuclear family:  the rise of materialism; fight for employment survival, and preoccupation with the adult’s problems while being too busy to recognise danger signs in their offspring.  Also evident is a search for rapid, as distinct from delayed gratification.   Religion as a moderating influence has subsided (the usual consequence when the foundations of something are undermined).

Some initiatives in social education such as ‘Self-Esteem Building’ started from morally defensible motives, but strayed later.  One could even defend the more sensible examples of Political Correctness under this heading, and the core value of Harm Reduction as traditionally practised (ie. engaging with people known to be using drugs, to mitigate the effects of their use whilst working towards abstinence) is likewise worthy of support.  Unfortunately the outcome from this mixture is not always what was expected.  As one American sociologist ruefully remarked to this writer:

‘When you’re up to your rear end in alligators it’s kinda hard to remember you started out by wanting to drain the swamp’.

In the context of youth and drugs the outcome may be characterised and described in one of two ways:

either (1):   Young people want quick pleasure;  they want their ‘rising expectations fulfilled now, so that their ‘right to be happy’ is exercised.  Drug misuse seems to be both celebrated by  media and youth icons as well as effectively condoned by harm reduction information and only limply constrained moral guidance (nowhere near as important as one’s self-esteem).  Drugs are also more available, cheaper in real terms  and a lower proportion of one’s disposable income.   Thus drug misuse appears to become a viable option.  Society says ‘It’s your choice, as long as its an informed choice’.   Teachers are awash with curriculum and management demands, and parents have retired to the margins;  hence the ‘informing’ of choice is effectively left to a small number of education advisers, youth workers and the like.  If they are disciples of a Values Clarification approach (see below) or if they see accepting youth behaviour, rather than setting any boundaries, as the price for credibility and acceptance by youth, then the stage is set for a disaster.

or (2):       We’re up to our rear end in alligators.

How did we get here?

It was in the 1960’s, both in the UK and the USA, that a sea change in educational approaches fully took hold; morals-based education gave way to individual rights. (Naylor, 1999).  Whilst there is undoubtedly merit in, say, relinquishing authoritarianism in favour of a valid degree of democracy in the classroom, several commentators are now remarking on what became a sustained torrent, sweeping away the foundations of practice rather than stopping with the removal of some redundant or otherwise lesser-valued superstructures.  (Education Issues, 1999).  So it was that apparently disparate subjects such as reading, mathematics, history, geography, and religious education fell victim to the excesses of an overheated individual–rights approach in which some pupils could even decide whether to participate in classes or not.  In the case of the last of these (religious education) there was an even more profound retreat from tradition. It was almost axiomatic that ‘lifestyle’ subjects such as sex education, drugs education, and umbrella subjects like PSE/PSHE – Personal, Social, Health Education – would be at the forefront of the flow.

Francis Fukuyama is one who has taken the measure of this; in his book ‘The Great Disruption’ he advances several possible reasons for the changes in educational process.  (Fukuyama, 1999).  Whilst his hypotheses are open to debate, especially since they curiously omit any reference to a moral dimension, the changes in social behaviour in the last three decades are a matter of sobering fact.  Educational analyst, former Schools Council (now QCA) member and head teacher Fred Naylor has correlated US government statistical publications (Naylor, 1999) to produce a salutary summary, showing juvenile crime up 300%, rampant use of illegal drugs, abortions up 800%, illegitimacy up 450%, and STD’s up by more than 200% . Accepted indicators of family life showed it to be moribund.

Added Value?

A further major player, not widely recognised is the UK but certainly influential on pedagogy here is the approach known as Values Clarification, identified by some commentators as part of the ‘Outcome-Based Education’ (OBE) school of thought. (Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights, 1999).  This originated in Wisconsin, USA in the 1970s and eminent co – authors of the approach included the psychotherapy guru Carl Rogers, Professor Sidney Simon and psychologist William Coulson.  Like many approaches which go awry, Values Clarification started from a laudable concept i.e. that pupils should be facilitated to discover , and thus reach consensus on ‘values which are beneficial to society’.  But within a short time the concept was diverted (some would say subverted) to one in which pupils crystallised values which were beneficial to them as individuals; (Markwood, 1999) external constraints from society, authorities, parents etc, were to be viewed as obstacles to the individuals’ ‘self-actualisation’ – as Abraham Maslow, another contemporary of Rogers, terms it. (Maslow, 1954)

Naylor comments on this in his 1998 consultation document to Britain’s Social Exclusion Unit. (Naylor, 1998)  His paper is targeted on teen pregnancy but makes strong reference to drug misuse as part of the ‘joined-up problem’ which ‘joined-up government’ needs to address.  Naylor quotes Yankelovich et al. who have demonstrated major correlation between ‘smoking habits, cannabis use, sexually precocious behaviour and the relationship between younger women and their parents’. (Yankelovich, 1997)  Dryfoos (1993) is also cited in endorsing these links between what he called ‘the new morbidities of youth … ‘resulting from drugs, sex, violence, depression and stress’ .

The diverted/subverted Values Clarification approach remains a powerful influence in its own right; not just on young people’s behaviour but also on teachers, and thus their approach – in class, and pastorally.  Looking back over the past three decades there seems little doubt as to the influence of this and related philosophies on the agendae espoused by teacher training colleges and other formative entities in the field.

It would seem that the notion of individual freedom had somehow become entwined with the grossly inaccurate view of drug misuse as a personal matter, affecting no one else.  The colossal falsity of this view is indelibly impressed upon this author, after more than 15 years of working with drug misusers, their families and societal/justice/health systems.  This individualistic ‘personal choice’ model was certainly given voice in the Values Clarification model, which espoused

‘…The revolutionary notion that children should be left to create their own autonomous world, and adults are being anti-democratic in trying to pass their values to their children’. (Naylor, 1999).

One of the original architects of Values Clarification was the influential American psychologist William Coulson, a close associate of Carl Rogers and co-practitioner of Roger’s ‘non-directive therapy’, in which people with problems are not furnished with (external) answers but instead are assisted to discover the answer within themselves.  This has become a cornerstone of UK counselling, and for problem–solving it does at least have the rationale that a solution arrived at by the client may have more chance of ‘sticking’ than one externally delivered.  But this has to do with ‘problem people’.

Another definition for Rogers’ approach is ‘client–centered’; the similarity between this term and ‘pupil – centred’ is no accident.  It identifies the pragmatic transfer of problem-solving therapy into general education.  For Coulson this at first seemed (Coulson, 1994) a sensible progression; in his own words “We had the idea that if it was good for neurotics, it would be good for normals”.  But as time passed and Values Clarification transmogrified towards its present form, he became more and more disturbed by what he saw.  An early warning sign came when Rogers and Coulson tried floating the programme with what they deemed as ‘ordinary’ people in Rogers’ home/university state of Wisconsin.  Coulson observed that ‘the normal people of Wisconsin proved their normality by opting out, on being told what the concept was… ‘so’ said Coulson ‘we went to California.’  That did it.

Some years later, as the (Rogerian) Values Clarification practice spread to Australia, an Education Conference (Bowen, 1990) in Victoria heard an analysis of what the speaker, Jim Bowen, described as ‘…the causes of the crisis in Australian education’  Bowen, a barrister and president of the Australian Family Association in his state, quoted Professor Sidney Simon, Values Clarification co-author as saying:

“The school must not be allowed to continue fostering the immorality of morality.  An entirely different set of values must be nourished”.

Bowen goes on to describe how Values Clarification had been seen in action, in the schools in Victoria State:

‘Application of values clarification techniques in the classroom requires children to choose a value, affirm it publicly, and be prepared to defend it under pressure from the teacher and classmates.  Children are subjected to searching questions about personal and family beliefs, attitudes and behaviour…In a context resembling group therapy, powerful psychological tools, such as sensitivity training are employed to produce changes in children’s attitudes and behaviour.  In role playing games, children are subjected to mental stress through emotional involvement.  Doubts concerning previously held values and loyalties are implanted while children are psychologically vulnerable, leaving them open to implantation of other values.’

In (Gestalt – based) educational practices in Switzerland, similar approaches were encountered. (Citizens Commission on Human Rights, 1999)  Amongst other expressed objectives was the ‘need’ to understand that:

‘Morals are regarded as obstacles which hinder the development of ‘my authentic self’ and the teacher has no right to impose his sense of values about what is right or wrong’.

Regrets, I have a few

Some years into the Values Clarification era there were increasing signs of disquiet, even amongst the prime movers.  William Coulson became one of the fiercest critics, and another eminent professional, Abraham Maslow, joined in disparaging the process. Maslow warned early of some of the risks he saw in Values Clarification. (Coulson, 1994)  According to Coulson, “Maslow …believed in evil, and we didn’t.”  (Astonishing, considering Coulson’s background as a practising Catholic, graduated from Notre Dame), ‘Maslow said there was danger in our thinking and acting as if there were no paranoids or psychopaths or SOBs in the world to mess things up… We created a miniature utopian society, the Encounter Group.  As long as Rogers and those who feared Rogers’ judgement were present it was okay …. He kept people in line; he was a moral force’.

But the self-destruct ‘outcome’ of the approach was beginning to worry even Rogers.  In  a 1976 tape interview (Coulson, 1994) with Coulson, Rogers referred to it as “this damned thing…” and expressed concern that he didn’t “… have any idea what’s going to happen next … did I start something that is in some fundamental way mistaken, and will lead us off into paths that we will regret?”

Coulson tried to construct a rationale for  this by referring back to his own religious antecedents, and looking for some related sense of  religiosity in his colleagues and himself..  But  Rogers  claimed to be ‘too religious to have a religion ….. I don’t follow a creed, I make my own.’ Says Coulson: ‘Rogerians have no tribe except for everybody; and everybody is too large to give any sense of definition, of limit”.

This is not to say that religious faith is the whole of the solution (at any rate, not as perceived by this author).  But for many people (including this author) their religiosity guides them with a moral structure and, on a more general level, non–sectarian authorities such as the World Health Organisation still explicitly identify spiritual health as one key element of total health.

‘Development’ of ‘modern values’ continues today; the 1999 pre-launch release of a new British publication, the Journal of Values Education, predicts that a ‘values education’ approach would have young people discuss such questions as:

‘Are drugs really bad for you ?’ and
‘If adults drink alcohol why shouldn’t I take ecstasy ?’

These may be legitimate secondary school senior form debating topics, but caution coupled with a keen eye for ‘heffalump traps’ is a prudent necessity; pupil age and teacher competency are vital, if this kind of exploration is not to go badly off-track.

Reasons to be cheerful

A major marker on values was put down by the Government in May 1999 when, in response to strong criticisms they withdrew a draft Guidance on PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) which made no mention of marriage, let alone advocating marriage as a socially constructive condition.  In the resulting rethink Minister Paul Boateng voiced the policy of his senior Minister David Blunkett when he went on public record (Boateng, 1999) as saying:

‘We can’t, and we’re not going to, have a value-free curriculum’

The remark was welcomed by other parties and by (some) education specialists.  Opposition MP David Willetts expressed the hope that there would now be abandonment of ‘the claim that you can teach about these things without any moral framework’.  The working group responsible for this aberrant PSHE Guidance, under the chairmanship of Estelle Morris (Education) and Tessa Jowell (Health), were not the first to ‘overlook’ marriage as a recommended option.  Some three years earlier the then education Secretary,  Gillian Shepherd,  found  it  necessary  to  amend a draft ‘statement of values’ which had initially said nothing about marriage.  Calls for a stronger statement of family values’ led to the finalised statement committing to ‘support marriage as the traditional form of family unit’.

It should not be assumed that such statements of family values axiomatically exclude other lifestyles; what is being seen here is reaffirmation of societal core values which are resurfacing after a period of calculated erosion, largely inspired by the proponents of alternative lifestyles (and often, understandably, arising from these alternatives having had historical situations of social prejudice and disadvantage).  The pendulum is likely to swing back and forth in this respect for the foreseeable future, the possibility of a stasis acceptable to all being remote with such a volatile subject.  It ought, however, to be possible to gradually (or, dare one say, ‘progressively’) dampen the amplitude of variation about the mean, given sufficient will and wisdom.

Hope rather than dope?

In this ‘PC’ age we seem to constantly – at least figuratively – tie our shoelaces together before entering the race for the hearts and minds of our young.   To ‘moralise’ is now deemed to mean being superior;  you can be a ‘patron’ (protector, advocate) as long as you don’t ‘patronise’;  having ‘values’ is code for saying you are old-fashioned …. Victorian, even;  ‘family’ is passé, and there are no children, only young adults.  When it comes to drugs, the period of misusing them is a ‘career’, and their use is typified as ‘social’ or ‘recreational’.   If nothing else, a return to some sort of balance will require a complete overhaul of the semantics surrounding this issue.

The implications of all this for schools, and – not least – teaching staff, are stark.  But the situation is far from irreversible;  it became worse by small degrees, and resolution is likely to proceed at no faster pace – not least because the present incumbents, the so-called ‘progressives’’ will neither change philosophy nor move over without significant input of energy and solid argument by others.  What is more likely is that things will get worse before they get better; meanwhile, at the ‘chalk-face’, hard-pressed teaching staff will continue to strive for the best for their pupils.

Vying for scarce funds escalates healthy competition into unhealthy conflict, thus we find education workers denigrating each other.  It does seem that it is in the arena of educational philosophy that  the bloodiest battles are fought.  In this arena the middle ground is only entered when heavily armoured, and any concession from the other side is seen as a weak point begging for a fatal thrust.  Peacemaking is not always easy; say too little and you are arrogant – say too much and you are patronising.  Perhaps it would help, when helping to bring organisations closer, to remember that:

‘The reason we often don’t communicate is that we build
towers instead of bridges’.

Constructive criticism of this state of affairs should strive to avoid not only ‘educationist Luddism’ but also the far reaches of moral absolutism and repression – however, a clear moral stand cannot be ducked.  One could start by conceding that many involved in the so-called ‘progressive’ movement went there for the best of reasons.  It is also fair to say that some educational changes in this context replaced poor or negative practices.  For example, few of us would wish to return to an autocratic or authoritarian classroom constrained to unremitting didactic presentation.  (This author certainly would not).  But there is a sensible middle ground, in which the learning environment really is focused on useful learning whilst at the same time it encourages exploration and consensus, achieved by an appropriate mix of the didactic with the interactive.  And, moreover, a clear definition of where society places its boundaries, and why, i.e. the values on which these boundaries are based.  It is a matter of some surprise (or should be) that drug education ‘progressives’ should advocate the total absence of values – the spuriously–named ‘value–free learning environment’ – when considering drug misuse.  These same individuals see no problem in defining theft or violence (or even driving on the correct side of the road) as boundaries not to be transgressed, in order to uphold society’s values (and health).  The argument is therefore not about the need for boundaries per se, but rather about where they should be placed.  History may yet tell us why the ‘progressive’ educationists believe that drug misuse is a special case for which values and boundaries i.e. morals, are not relevant.

Whilst the worst excesses of ‘OBE’ and Values Clarification are to be avoided, there can be merit in an age-appropriate discussion of why society has values and boundaries; why they are set where they are, and therefore why they should be followed.  This could be related to simple school ‘rules’, as an example having some immediacy for pupils.

A Constructive Plan

Learning from international research and practice in drug prevention and related issues, sufficient lessons can be learnt to sketch the framework of a more effective approach. A school’s drug policy should not be confined to intervening when problems arise;  it should define goals with clear values and boundaries, and say how it will achieve these goals (i.e. prevention) – only then should it turn to responding to individual aberrations, responses which focus less on punishment and more on return to acceptable behaviour.   Learning how to make ‘Informed Choices’ can be facilitated but should not extend to those behaviours for which ‘choice’ is inappropriate e.g. lawbreaking, including drug misuse.   The schools’s ethos should encompass responsibility to Society, not just to Self; the pursuit of Liberty but not of Licence; exercise of Rights but with the accompanying Responsibilities, and an unequivocal understanding of the consequences of breaching the school’s behaviour code … this way, the pupil is not so much being ‘punished’ as receiving the consequence they have ‘earnt’.

This brief paper has attempted to indicate explicitly how and why the present unhealthy and counter-productive situation around drug prevention and education has arisen. It is to be hoped that papers like this will encourage some new flexibility into the dialogue. There are no illusions as to this process being quick; nor will it be without pain, especially that ensuing from grasping that fearsome nettle known as ‘Morals’.


Bowen, J. 1990 ‘Why classrooms have become a battleground’.  Australian News Weekly.  3 March 1990.

Boateng, P. (1999) ‘Blunkett climbdown on morality lessons’.  Daily Mail. (London) 15 May 1999.

Citizens Commission on Human Rights (1999).  Psychiatry’s and Psychology’s Eradication of Right and Wrong. Contact Lord/Lady McNair Box 28008, London, SE27 0WD.

Coulson, W.  (1994).  ‘We overcame their traditions, we overcame their faith’.  The Latin Mass.  1331 Red Cedar Circle, Ft. Collins, CO 80524.  Jan-Feb 1994, pp. 14 – 22.

Dryfoos, J.G. (1993) Preventing Substance Abuse: Rethinking Strategies.  American Journal of Public Health.  83; 793 – 795.

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Phillips, M.(2000) ‘Britain is quietly turning into a drug culture’  Sunday Times,  9th Jan. 2000

Stoker, A (1999). D.A.R.E – An Overview of Research (also includes ‘What can be learnt from the Roehampton Review?’)  NDPA, P.O. Box 594, Slough, SL1 1AA.

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Stoker, P. (1999) Drugs and Professional Subculture. NDPA.  P.O. Box 594, Slough, SL1 1AA.

Towe, N. (2000) Drug Education Forum,  Letter to Editor of Sunday Times, 16th Jan 2000
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Yankelovich et al. (1997) Cigarette Smoking among Teenagers and Young Women.  Dept of Health and Welfare.  Publication No. 16, National Institute of Health.  77; 1203.

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