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The Australian Values Education Framework: no justification required? [Paper presented at The Hawke Research Institute for Sustainable Societies’ seminar, University of South Australia, 7 June 2006]

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The Australian Values Education Framework: No justification required?

Dr Sue Knight & Dr Carol Collins

It has long been argued that education should be directed towards both individual

and social ends.1 In the West, the social end has been identified with the

development of a just democracy, so that the fundamental goal of education is seen

as one of equipping individuals to function optimally as members of a just democratic

society. Now however these social and individual ends are to be spelled out, it

seems clear that optimal individual functioning, as well as just democracy, requires

individuals to be disposed to exercise sound moral judgment. This finds expression

in the 1999 Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling:

National Goal 1

…When students leave school they should (1.3)… have the capacity to

exercise judgment in matters of morality, ethics and social justice…to make

rational and informed decisions about their own lives and to accept

responsibility for their actions… .


g_in_the_twenty_first_century.htm )

In the Adelaide declaration then, we haven acknowledgement that moral (or values)

education is a critical part of Australian education in the years of compulsory


Subsequently though, governmental advisory committees have pointed to what they

see as a ‘values vacuum’ in our schools. They have suggested that a number of

factors, particularly the move away from religion and the growth of multi-culturalism in

Australia, have led teachers and schools to shy away from values education for fear

of indoctrination.

In 2002, in response to such concerns, the Ministerial Council of Education,

Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) called for a large-scale study to

inform the development of a framework and set of principles for Values Education in

Australian Schools. The study (which involved a literature review, and contributions

1 In the West, the argument goes back at least as far as Plato. See his Republic, translated by H.D.P. Lee, Penguin Classics, 1955.


from a range of consultants as well as surveys of school community groups)

identified two main approaches to values education:

1. Character education, in which values education is seen as the teaching of societal



2. A ‘development of moral reasoning’ approach, in which students not only engage

in values clarification exercises but are also are taught the skills required for making

moral judgments or decisions.

The study pointed to the possibility of employing a synthesis of both approaches, but

importantly, it also identified a set of nine “Common Australian Values” (see below),

and in so doing, set the direction for a ‘common values’ approach’ to moral

education in Australian schools. In response to the study, the federal government

has provided funding of $29.7 million, to implement this common values programme.( )

Nine Values for Australian Schooling

1. Care and Compassion

Care for self and others

2. Doing Your Best

Seek to accomplish something worthy and admirable, try hard, pursue excellence

3. Fair Go

Pursue and protect the common good where all people are treated fairly for a just society

4. Freedom

Enjoy all the rights and privileges of Australian citizenship free from unnecessary interference or control,

and stand up for the rights of others

5. Honesty and Trustworthiness

Be honest, sincere and seek the truth

6. Integrity

Act in accordance with principles of moral and ethical conduct, ensure consistency between words and


7. Respect

Treat others with consideration and regard, respect another person’s point of view

8. Responsibility

Be accountable for one’s own actions, resolve differences in constructive, non-violent and peaceful

ways, contribute to society and to civic life, take care of the environment

9. Understanding, Tolerance and Inclusion

Be aware of others and their cultures, accept diversity within a democratic society, being included and

including others


While those of us who have been working in this area for many years welcome this

emphasis on and support for moral education, we want to argue that the Australian

Common Values approach has some serious shortcomings. We would argue that,

as it stands, it cannot succeed in meeting the central goal of Values education, that

is, the goal of developing in students the capacity and disposition to exercise

judgment in matters of morality, ethics and social justice.

We need to take a closer look at the set of ‘Values for Australian Schooling’, in order

to make our point. In fact, we’ll make a number of points.

First, the values listed are vague to the point of being empty. It is this very

vagueness which lends some initial plausibility to the claim that these are values held

in common. But even a cursory examination is enough to dispel this illusion. The

problem here is not that the values are described by very general terms. After all

many very general terms are useful; terms like ‘living thing’ or ‘colour’ are examples

of such terms, in that they distinguish fairly clearly, one set of objects from another

(living from non-living things) or one set of properties from another (colours from

shapes, eg). But the terms employed here to pick out the so-called values are not like

this. Take, for example the term describing the third value, the term. ‘Fair go’,

spelled out as ‘treating people fairly for a just society’. To be useful, the term must

distinguish one set of behaviours from another. But now suppose we try to work out

which ways of treating people fit under the descriptor ‘treating people fairly’, and

which do not. This might well form the basis of a classroom exercise. Let’s suppose

now, that we set our students such an exercise.

More particularly, suppose the task we set is that of deciding which, among a number

of possible teacher behaviours would count as fair, and which unfair. Carol recently

held such a discussion with a group of 6/7 students in a northern areas school.

Some children claimed that it was unfair that a small group of students in the class

received additional help in maths and English lessons, arguing that treating people

fairly meant treating them equally. Other students disagreed, arguing that many of

the students granted extra attention found English really difficult, so that they needed

extra help to manage the work. Yet others argued that these students weren’t the

only ones who needed help with literacy, and that what was unfair was that all those

who needed extra help weren’t given it. Someone suggested that this would cost too

much. This led another student to say that at a previous school her year 7 teacher


had simply ignored those who were not reading fluently, and concentrated on the

‘clever’ ones -it was as though, she said, the teacher had just given up on us.2

In this discussion we see three conflicting ideas about what counts as a fair go; three

different and conflicting ways of distinguishing fair treatment from unfair treatment.

And each of these ideas has wide currency within the general community.

1. Fair treatment involves treating people equally; (We only have to think of

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party)

2. Fair treatment involves treating people unequally, with more resources going

to those in greater need; (The Labour Party’s now-abandoned education

policy from the last election)

3. Fair treatment involves treating people unequally, with more resources going

to those who are more deserving/ have more merit.

Clearly, someone who holds the first, ‘equal treatment’ view will consider that treating

people in either of the alternate ways mentioned here would constitute unfair

treatment, and so would not fit under the descriptor ‘fair go’. There is no common

notion of ‘fair go’ in the way in which there is a common notion of ‘living things’ or


Similarly, the second value on the list, i.e. “doing your best” is defined as “seeking to

accomplish something worthy and admirable”, but what achievements count as

worthy or admirable is not spelled out. Does it include making money at the expense

of others? Clearly, some members of our society would say ‘yes’, while others would

say ‘no’. Again, it is doubtful whether there is a common notion of ‘worthy


Or what about the value (value 6) of “Integrity”, defined as “acting in accordance with

the principles of moral and ethical conduct”. But what might these principles be? Are

they religious principles? Are they principles handed down within the family from one

generation to another? Are they derived from the Universal Declaration of Human

Rights? Again, we find considerable difference, rather than common agreement,

2 See Collins, C (2005) ‘Education for a just democracy: the role of ethical inquiry’, Doctoral Thesis, University of South Australia, for descriptions of other classroom-based ethical inquiry sessions.


about what these principles are and why we should adopt them/ where they come


To summarise: A number at least of the so-called common values are empty, open to

conflicting interpretations. Yet, to prescribe one of these interpretations over another

is to abandon commonality. Even were we to succeed in identifying a well-defined

set of common values at a local level, that is at the level of a school community - and

this is the task schools have been set in the second stage of the National Values

Education initiative - two grave difficulties remain.

The first is this: The Common Values Approach clearly depends on getting the set

of values right. What we might expect then, is to find detailed statements purporting

to justify the set of values we end up with. But we find little or no attempt at

justification either within the government documents or their professional

development materials, or at the local implementation level ie at the school level.

Our concern here is that in the absence of justification, the Common Values

approach amounts to no more than an appeal to a moral authority. The dangers of

mere appeal to moral authority cannot be underestimated. And it is surely dangerous

to model this practice to our students, to encourage them to adopt values without


Now for the second and perhaps most obvious difficulty: Equipping students

with a set of values is not in itself sufficient to develop their capacity to exercise moral

judgement, just as equipping students with the rules of football is not in itself

sufficient to develop their ability to play football.

I guess it seems clear in the case of footy but to make the case for morals, let’s turn

to another classroom example.

Suppose I’m a year 5 teacher; that I’m convinced of the worth of both the values

“Honesty” and “Care and Compassion” and committed to working to develop an

appreciation of these values in students. We’ve recently been focusing on these

values, and the children have been encouraged to put them into practice in their daily

lives. Now Ali, has to make a moral decision. To her dismay, she is invited by a

classmate to play after school. Understanding the value of care and compassion,

she is about to respond with a lie, that she can’t because she has a dentist


appointment. But then, she recalls their classroom activities on the importance of

being honest and wonders whether she should simply say ‘No thanks, I can think of

far more interesting things to do.’ In this instance, the values of compassion/caring

and honesty clash head on. To make a decision, Ali needs a principle or procedure

to follow here, to help her work out which of these values to override in this particular

case. But the set of values she’s been taught contains no such principle or


Here is another example. On the bus with friends, on the way to work, someone in

your group loudly protests that we shouldn’t allow Muslims to settle in Australia

because they are too different from us - violence is rife in their culture and so on.

Sitting across from you, is a man you know to be a Muslim refugee in Australia on a

temporary visa. Do you stand up for his rights (as the Australian value of “Freedom”

directs you to do, or do you nod and say simply, “You’re entitled to your point of view”

thus respecting his opinion as the Australian Value of “Respect” directs you to do?

Again, we are faced with a clash of values, and no guiding principle or procedure for

working out which value is more important in this case.

The hard moral decisions are just those that result from a clash of values. This is

why, in itself, no set of values is sufficient to deliver a moral judgement. If we want

values or moral education to equip students to make moral judgements, we need to

supplement the Common Values approach with a focus on a set of principles or

procedures to guide us in dealing with clashes of values. We want now to consider

what these guiding principles and procedures might look like.

Of course, one line of thought has it that this is an impossible task.

After all, people will disagree over whether or not Ali should lie, so saving her

classmate’s feelings, or tell the truth, so hurting her classmate’s feelings. It is likely

then, that different people use different principles to resolve value clashes, to decide

what ought to be done. What should these principles be? And how are we to

decide on them? Here, we are faced clearly with the problem that bedevils any

approach to values or moral education: the fact of moral disagreement, both

within and across cultures.

I judge torture to be always wrong, but many others, including other Western

governments, judge that it is sometimes justified. I make the judgement that abortion

is morally right - many others in this society take it to be morally wrong, tantamount


to murder. In our society, infanticide is judged to be morally wrong, while there are

other cultures who have judged it to be morally right. Who is to say which of these

conflicting judgements count as sound judgements, and which do not? On what

grounds could we make this call? Perhaps we simply cannot say.

If we disagree over a factual matter (say) whether smoking is harmful, we at least

agree on the sort of evidence that would decide the matter: it is factual evidence

about the effect of tobacco on lungs and blood vessels. But it is less clear what kind

of evidence we could appeal to, to show (say) that abortion is sometimes morally

right. Perhaps there isn’t any evidence to draw upon here. And in the absence of

evidence, perhaps we have to simply accept the fact of moral difference? Surely we

cannot condemn another individual’s or another culture’s moral values, just because

they differ from ours? Surely we cannot say that the customs of another society are

morally inferior to our own, just because they are different?

And indeed, the emphasis within current educational policy and curriculum, on being

aware of others and their cultures, and accepting (even respecting) diversity and

others’ points of view, make us wary of saying that some moral judgements are

better than others. For example, we feel wary about holding that whaling is morally

wrong, when it is considered right in Japanese and Norwegian cultures. We feel

wary perhaps about holding that girls and boys should have the same opportunities

and rights within the broader community, when this clashes with the cultural values

within our schools. We are wedded pretty firmly to the notion of tolerance, of

respecting all values. In other words, we are headed in the direction of moral

relativism. Indeed the vagueness of Common Australian Values appears to reflect

this relativist approach.

But surely a focus on examples such as racism, slavery or bullying shows us what is

wrong with relativism. Surely these are examples of situations in which we want to

exercise particular moral judgements, and indeed, in which we want students to

exercise particular moral judgements. We want our students to judge that racism or

child abuse or bullying are morally wrong.

Why do we feel confident about encouraging these judgements in such

situations? Given this degree of confidence, it might be worth asking again whether

there is any evidence we can point to, to justify our moral decisions? Can we find


evidence that for example, bullying is wrong? And surely we can; the evidence lies in

the harm/suffering bullying causes.

We can generalise from this example:

Morality is grounded in human good and harm (suffering),


Human beings share common capacities for suffering and for happiness

Other species have the capacity for suffering too - consider all sentient

beings. Sentient beings are beings that suffer, and humans form a special class of

sentient beings.

These are the general principles which must underlie any set of values, the principles

which must form the basis of a moral decision making procedure. They do not in

themselves deliver a moral decision making process of course. But we can also

draw on some other well established elements of ethical reasoning, such as

considering as fully as possible the consequences of one’s behaviour, taking

circumstances into account and ensuring consistency between one’s beliefs and

between one’s beliefs and actions. By paying close attention to such elements, we

can identify a set of capacities which are necessary for the making of reasoned moral

judgments. Such capacities include:

• Understanding others’ interests

• Being aware of one’s own needs, both emotional and physical

• Caring about other people’s feelings, so that one has sympathy for others’


• Considering as fully as possible the consequences of one’s behaviours

(taking all things into consideration before acting, including effect on others,

on oneself, one’s character and habits and the direction of one’s life, as well

as on the institutions of the society of which one is part)

• Distinguishing like from unlike situations, typical from a-typical situations3

And so on…

3 Matthew Lipman discusses the elements of ethical reasoning in his ‘Philosophy in the Classroom’ (1980), Temple University Press, Philadelphia.


Surely it is such capacities which any values education programme must seek to

develop. And more than this, children must be given opportunities to practice and

refine the use of these capacities and to understand and appreciate their value. It is

only in this way that students will begin to develop a disposition to engage widely in

reasoned moral decision making.

It seems odd then, that this approach to Values Education has not been given more

careful consideration given the strength of these theoretical arguments, the fact that

we have at hand educational resources which would support teachers to implement

the approach (indeed, that a dialogue-based ethical inquiry approach to Values

Education is already being implemented successfully here and elsewhere-remember our earlier example of Carol’s classroom work) and given also that there is

a growing body of empirical evidence, including evidence from local studies, which

indicates that such an approach is effective in developing individuals’ capacities and

dispositions for moral reasoning.

In summing up, we would argue that it is not too late for this ethical inquiry approach

to Values Education to be taken up alongside the existing Common Values

approach. Were this to happen, the teacher’s role would change from that of

adjusting the child to society, to one of educating children in such a fashion that they

can eventually come to shape society for the better.

This paper was presented as part of The Hawke Research Institute for Sustainable

Societies’ seminar on ‘Values and Ethics across the Curriculum’ - Three Current

Perspectives, Wednesday June 7th, Mawson Lakes Campus, University of South

Australia. Sue Knight, Carol Collins and Fred Dorr are currently working on a fuller

version of the paper which will be made available in the near future.


Dr Sue Knight        Dr Carol Collins 

School of Education, Magill    School of Education, Magill 

Phone: 8302 4550        Phone: 8302 4106 

Email:     Email: