Schools, I've come to concede after 13 years experience as a pupil and six as a pupil's mum, are good for some things. But when it comes to instilling values and building character, I'd feel safer leaving my kids in the hands of Doctor Who and Roald Dahl. And I'll do my bit too.
A survey of parents this week revealed that 84% of parents polled wanted teachers to 'encourage good morals and values'. Tom Harrison, the deputy director of Populus for the University of Birmingham's Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, who carried out the survey, said religious education and citizenship already provided this service to a helpful degree, but parents seemed to want further efforts to encourage principles like honesty and fairness.
Most of us would agree that honesty and fairness are nice things, though a glimpse of Celebrity Big Brother might persuade a child that 'just being honest' is the cornerstone of bullying. And actually, though that aside was merely a smirking sideswipe, it does address a major problem with the notion that schools should teach/define/select 'positive' values. Who gets to pick the values, and what happens if we don't all agree?
'Schools' is a safe-sounding collective noun. It suggests a place where children are protected, educated and enlightened. 'Establishment managed by disparate bunch of individuals, each with their own set of prejudices, beliefs and personal hang-ups' doesn't sound quite so cosy.
Even if we set aside recent examples of schools hushing up playground bullying, denying parents' access to their children's records, dragging their feet in acknowledging pupils' special needs, forbidding children, including girls having their period, to go to the toilet during lessons and even, as we saw in the recent example of Bradford Moor Primary, 'up-marking' papers to falsify results – deep breath – there are fundamental problems with any idea of consensual morality. No matter how brilliant the teacher is. And there are some fantastic ones.
For some, alarm bells might have started ringing when Mr Harrison mentioned religious education as a source of 'moral' teaching. For many, faith schools are a major factor in the continued prevalence of social division and sectarianism, and RE, the nature of which differs widely depending on a school's religious identity, may do as much harm as good.
If we ask an RE teacher in a faith school to advise children on the rights and wrongs of abortion or homosexuality, how likely is everyone to concur on the tenets to be taught? About as likely as we are to agree on whether Lady Gaga is a cheerleader for creativity and independent thought or a hyped-up chewed-up spat-out symbol of empty celebrity hyperbole (I'm in the former camp, though the vocab that comes with the latter is more fun.)
We can't even settle on the main function of education. Some of my friends firmly believe teachers should be focusing, even at primary, on subjects that will help pupils find a job. But I want them to encourage my children to perfect doing the things they love. And don't even start me on the soul-crushing tyranny of mandatory school uniforms for four-year-olds.
Even scarier, if we conclude school heads aren't up to deciding on which values to promote, who do we turn to? David Cameron? Peter Robinson? The Archbishop of Canterbury? The Reverend John Greer?
That Michael Palin seems like an awfully nice fella. Let's go with him. All agreed?