Social Cohesion and the Values Agenda

Posted on behalf of Gary Shaw, Targeted Programs Branch, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, East Melbourne, Australia

In 2003 the Australian federal government embarked on a national values education project. At the time the initiative was criticised for promoting an unhealthy form of nationalism or for embarking on a moral crusade. It could be argued that an emphasis on values during this period was anchored in a post September 11 view of the world and Australia’s place in it. Enhanced national security and border control measures, interment of refugees on Pacific islands and a new citizenship test were part of a range of measures introduced from 2001 onwards. By focussing on so called ‘Australian’ values, it was claimed that ideals of cultural identity, patriotism and citizenship were distorted. 

Five years on and initial reservations about government motivation have diminished, the public values discourse has been robust, the government has changed and I suggest that values-based education is now even more appropriate given the current social, environmental and political tensions of our time. Research findings from this project indicate that effective values-based education is not only central to quality learning and teaching environments but makes a significant contribution to safe and cohesive school environments.

Values-based education was not new in Australia and education authorities in a number of states had already articulated core values within local curriculum documents before 2003. What was new was a national approach, built around an agreed framework. The Framework of Values Education in Australian Schools was informed by research in schools throughout Australia and contained nine values for Australian schooling. These included respect, responsibility, care and compassion and integrity.

In framing the kinds of shared values to be fostered in Australian schools, it was suggested that:

[i]Values are often highly contested, and hence any set of values advanced for Australian schools must be the subject of substantial discussion and debate with school communities. The application of those values to real school circumstances invariably requires that they be appropriately contextualised to the school community concerned, and involve the community in the process of their implementation. (Department of Education Science and Training 2003)[/i]

At the heart of this initiative was a desire to create opportunities and resources to assist school communities reflect on the values that underpinned school policy and practice. In many respects it gave permission for school administrators, teachers, students and their families and broader community to talk about the place they wanted their school to be and the experiences they wanted for students.

Values are defined as the principles and fundamental convictions which act as general guides to behaviour. Shared values and beliefs, often rooted in particular understandings of our history, our family and our community, make a significant contribution to the way we see each other and approach problem solving.

Understanding and enacting shared values are critical for promoting tolerant and peaceful communities. Democracy, citizenship and governance can be easily taught but it is when students have opportunities to rehearse civic responsibility, practice social skills and develop an awareness of other values and positions that notions of social cohesion are developed. Such experiences are reinforced when teachers model democracy and inclusion and promote citizenship through such activities as peer mediation, student leadership programs and service learning initiatives.

Values, beliefs and attitudes shape the way people live their lives. This works well when they are in the company of people who share similar understandings and experiences. The challenge is to manage situations where beliefs and values are not aligned. In a 21st Century multi-cultural and multi-faith Australia the management of difference and diversity is at the forefront of government social policy.

Evidence emerging from research, case studies and school reports indicate that values-based education in Australian schools is making a significant contribution to positive and more harmonious school environments.

For further information on this Australian values education initiative visit the Australian Department of Education by clicking here