By THERESA GARNER and BRONWYN SELL
The classroom days of most of the youths who come before the Wanganui Youth Court are long gone.
But Judge Andrew Becroft can paint a disturbing picture of the typical teenager he sees in his court, and is a keen proponent of teaching values in schools.
He says that as well as commonly having no meaningful contact with their fathers, the young offenders are "usually streetwise and seem to have an underdeveloped set of moral values, sometimes definitely so."
"It seems to be a certain inevitability ... the values they have are individualistic and they are committed to imme-diate self-gratification and short-term answers.
"Values such as responsibility, respect and duty don't seem to be shared."
About 80 per cent of the youths he sees are not at school and have had no connection with school for years, either because of truancy or because they have been expelled.
"The irony is that those who could benefit from some values-based education are least likely to receive it."
Judge Becroft believes schools are the "last best shot" society has of stopping young people entering a life of unemployment, benefit dependency and crime.
He is supported in this view by the Education Review Office (ERO) locally and Unesco internationally.
The 1996 Unesco report Learning the Treasure Within, published by the International Commission on Education, examines the role of education in the 21st century.
It bluntly states that if mass education systems do not start addressing the spiritual and moral dimension of young people, democracies might not survive and humanity itself could be in jeopardy.
But mention values education to some and their eyes glaze over.
Past drives to include core values in education have been considering either woolly or repugnant, because of the fear that religion will breach the convention of our secular education system.
ERO head Dr Judith Aitken has a quick response. "People are nervous about religion, and we've confused religion with ethics. There is a clear difference."
Schools are responsible for the whole child, she says, but many do not fulfil their obligations, to the frustration of reviewers.
"One of the strong complaints is that the school may have a high academic record, but the level of violence is unacceptable, the climate is one where the children do not respect each other and the teachers do not respect the students.
"While there is emphasis on the cognitive development, the child's ethical, social and personal development is neglected."
Dr Aitken says the matter is far from trivial, as ethical issues such as incorruptibility, honesty and not putting one's nose in the public trough are daily challenges.
The director of the New Zealand Foundation for Values Education, former principal John Heenan, says the push for values in schools is not the latest fad.
Historically, three institutions shared the work: home, the church and schools.
"The school's role becomes even more vital at a time when thousands of children get little moral teaching from their parents, and when influences such as the church are absent from their lives."
He says everything a school does teaches values - the way teachers and other staff treat students, for instance.
The relevant issue is not whether schools should teach values, but which values should be taught, says Mr Heenan.
This is backed by Massey University Emeritus Professor Ivan Snook, who says schools are often doing the reverse of what a values-oriented school would do.
He recalls teaching a class of low-stream pupils at secondary school. "They said, 'You've got to admit, sir, we're the scum of the school.'
"Teachers have, by and large, been well-meaning but they've also been sarcastic and spoken about kids in a derogatory way, so I think there's been a good deal of miseducation in values."
Supporters of values education say it can help schools reduce negative student behaviour, improve academic performance and prepare young people to be responsible members of society.
Patrick Lynch, executive director of the New Zealand Catholic Education Office, says too many school-leavers experienced classrooms as places of failure, when to survive in the real world they needed self-confidence.
"Young people spend most of their day in the structured setting of a school," he says.
"Since many sole parents are struggling to bring up their kids as good citizens, schools and others in the community could assist them."
A recent poll showed 81 per cent of New Zealanders are worried about the country's youth. Statistics relating to suicide, drug and alcohol use indicate they have good reason.
Male suicides rose 119 per cent between 1974 and 1994, mostly in the 15- to-24 age group.
An Auckland University study showed the average amount of alcohol consumed in a drinking session by 14 to 18-year-olds went from three cans of beer in 1990 to 5.5 in 1995.
And the Christchurch Child Development Study, of 1265 children born in 1977, showed 15 per cent of males and 6 per cent of females were dependent on cannabis.
Young people, particularly those of school leaving age, have the highest rate of unemployment of any age group. For under 25s, the rate is more than twice the national average.
The Ministry of Education has told Education Minister Trevor Mallard that underachievement is a pressing problem.
A daunting 34 per cent of children leave school with no higher qualification than School Certificate.
Commissioner for Children Roger McClay says life for many New Zealand children is increasingly grim.
"Some young people are not being given the moral values support that they have a right to," he says.
"Schools have the children for so much of the time, so they are a wonderful opportunity to provide the cornerstone that some children may otherwise never get.
"It is not their sole job, but we want our children to know about kindness, compassion and responsibility, just as much as we need them to read and write.
"The most common denominator in prisons is that they don't know much about any of those things."
Governor-General Sir Michael Hardie Boys says of the schools' role:
"Surely the purpose of education is to prepare young people for life - not just to be efficient workers, and not only to achieve their full potential, but also to take their place in the community.
"How can that preparation be adequately undertaken unless as part of that education, there is instruction in the values that underpin society?"
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By THERESA GARNER and BRONWYN SELL