What do the following three events have in common – the re-organisation of schooling in Christchurch, the epic-length Novopay school salaries saga and the re-enrolment of a troubled young man in a Paeroa school?
Teachers? Schools? Boards of Trustees? Issues? Consultation? Ministry of Education? Yes, all of those things but I wasn’t thinking of those in particular. Each of these three issues has seen the involvement of young school students in quasi-political protest and campaigning. Many of them have been clutching banners which appear to have been made as class projects, many have wept at issues that were probably beyond their ken and most of them have appeared in front of television cameras.
I seriously question the ethics of all this. The issues have generally been between the grown-ups and ought to have been played out between the teachers, the Boards, the Ministry of Education and whoever else had a hand in them. The young pupils (and this does seem to be markedly a primary school response rather than a secondary school one) could quite properly have been left out of the street marches, the protests, and the hate messages (mostly directed at the Minister). All of this was demeaning to the profession.
Questions should be raised as to the level of informed consent that surrounds a group of young students being mobilised into protest action. Who consulted the parents and caregivers? What was the explanation and information given, what were the opportunities for permission to take part offered to both the students and their parents and caregivers? What protections were in place? What assistance and guidance offered when students became distraught? And could a pupil decline to tag along if they felt uncomfortable?
Then there is the appearance of young people in television news broadcasts. Were full ethical procedures followed? Or did the television simply tag along believing that they had no requirements to see that the photographing of young people was within guidelines and in accord with ethical standards?
I have previously quoted John Dewey who back in 1909 in his important book Moral Principals in Education succinctly stated the following:
There cannot be two sets of ethical principles, one for life in the schools, and the other for life outside the schools.
Are the principles and values demonstrated by the actions of the schools in the cases we are discussing genuinely those held by the communities they serve. I don’t mean simply did the schools and the communities agree on the issue. What matters are questions such as whether the ethical standards implicit in the use of young people in protest match up with what the community expects, believes in and supports? And to what extent was the emotion of the moment driving these events? The issue is not the same thing as the response to it.
Ethics is the study of ideal behaviour. Researchers when they start out on a research project are subjected to intense ethical scrutiny quite properly and if that research is on or about young people the intensity of the process increases. Is the research going to be conducted in an ideal way? Above all there is a key concept with the involvement of young people that they are not being “used” in ways that place pressure on them or increase stress and such like.
Schools carry these ethical standards day by day, and minute by minute and they involve everyone who is involved in the enterprise. That is why we are so shocked when high ethical standards are breached – especially when it involves students.
Our society goes to some lengths to protect its young and there is currently a huge concern that we are falling below an acceptable standard. Concerns are gravest when those institutions that should conserve the highest moral standards let everyone down. Examples include child abuse in a religious environment, sex criminals who one way or another inveigle their way into the employ of a school, the inappropriate relationship of a teacher with a student – they all make us feel abhorrence and the profession is diminished just a little each sad and sorry instance.
Therefore we need to practice a concern for young people in everything that we do in the name of education and schooling.
I wonder if in these three issues we did just that through our involvement of young vulnerable people.