Exploring ethics and values in education and public life

This theme is, inevitably, the subject of continuing debate.  In collaboration with its grantees and other charities, the Comino Foundation continues to play an active role in that debate.

In 1995 a UK Trust (IGE UK) was set up as a registered charity, with links to the Institute for Global Ethics (IGE) which had been founded in the US by the American journalist and writer, Dr Rushworth Kidder. The core mission of both was ‘to promote ethical behaviour in individuals, and cultures of integrity in institutions and nations, through research, public discourse and practical action’. Early activity by IGE UK coincided with the setting up of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in October 1994 under Lord Nolan. Debating with IGE UK whether the terms ‘values’, ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ could be used in public discourse, the Nolan Committee was assured that participants in IGE’s Ethical Fitness Seminars held views which were close to Nolan’s ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’:

  • Selflessness – Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
  • Integrity – Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
  • Objectivity – Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
  • Accountability – Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
  • Openness – Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
  • Honesty – Holders of public office should be truthful
  • Leadership – Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.[9]

In May 1988, the Comino Foundation invited IGE UK (which is now dissolved) to convene a consultation at St George’s House Windsor on ‘Common Values for the 21st Century’. The Aberdeen-based Gordon Cook Foundation https://www.gordoncook.org/ participated and the two foundations agreed to explore possibilities for joint working with IGE UK. This resulted in the ‘Personal Responsibility’ project which IGE UK managed, supported by joint funding and engagement from the two foundations.  The vision of the Personal Responsibility project was ‘a society in which people throughout the United Kingdom feel encouraged and empowered to exercise personal responsibility as individuals and in their local and wider communities’.

Initially the project explored links between values, rights and responsibilities as the UK’s Human Rights Act was being introduced in October 2000. One outcome was the formal launch in 2003 of the Impetus Awards programme which ran from 2002 to 2008 and enabled schools and youth groups across the UK to encourage young people to share the challenge of exploring ethical values, human rights and responsibilities in their local communities. This work enabled young people to share some excellent practice which was showcased across the UK with individual country events and six annual celebrations in London. The Impetus Awards programme received support funding from the Ministry of Justice, the Welsh Assembly Government, the Gordon Cook Foundation and the Comino Foundation.

Between 2002 and 2004, following a consultation in May 2002 on Parenting and Responsibility convened by IGE UK and the Comino Foundation, the focus of the Personal Responsibility project turned to Responsibility and the Media. This consultation also involved the National Family and Parenting Institute: https://www.nfpi.org/about/ and highlighted a lack of responsible reporting in the media. IGE UK subsequently convened several related events in London with contributions from numerous media organisations which were concerned with the responsibility of the media in a democratic society. As a continuation of the Personal Responsibilities project, the Comino and Gordon Cook Foundations funded IGE UK in 2009 to convene two consultations to consider ways of counteracting the negative image so often used by the media when featuring young people. The first consultation brought together young people from across the UK, youth organisations and youth-led policy think tanks, together with journalists and media organisations. Participants agreed that this constant negative portrayal within some media was itself having a negative effect on the confidence, attitudes and behaviour of young people and proposed the establishment of a Youth Media Charter and a Youth Press Complaints Gateway. The second consultation created a shared dialogue between the media and young people and explored how the negative portrayal of young people could be challenged.

Windsor youth consultation
Youth Media consultation, St George’s House, Windsor Castle 2010

The Education Reform Act of 1988 stated that: “The curriculum for a maintained school (must be) a balanced and broadly based curriculum which — (a) promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society; and (b) prepares such pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life.”

How schools should and could achieve such aims will always be open to question.  

In 1996 Sir Ron Dearing and Dr Nicolas Tate of the Schools’ Curriculum and Assessment Authority – now the QCA – set up the National Forum for Values in Education and the Community, a body of 150 people, in which the Comino Foundation was represented by Kenneth Adams.  The Forum explored the issues and circulated a discussion document on its findings.

Meanwhile, maintained schools were instructed to provide what has come to be known as ‘SMSC development’– spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.  Described as “a stand-alone document designed to be used by all those with an interest in pupils’ SMSC development”, the 2004 OFSTED publication on this theme makes clear how complex and contested an activity this can be:


As does the 2014 Department of Education publication Promoting fundamental British values as part of SMSC in schools:


The most succinct statement of what is currently expected of schools is in the National Curriculum in England documentation for 2023 – https://www.nc.uk.net/

“The curriculum should reflect values in our society that promote personal development, equality of opportunity, economic well-being, a healthy and just democracy, and a sustainable future.

These values should relate to:

  • Ourselves as individuals capable of spiritual, moral, social, intellectual and physical growth and development.
  • Our relationships, as fundamental to the development and fulfilment of happy and healthy lives, and to the good of the community.
  • Our society, which is shaped by the contributions of a diverse range of people, cultures and heritages.
  • Our environment, as the basis of life and a source of wonder and inspiration needs to be protected.”