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The Values Education Study 2003

Barbara Bereznicki
David Brown
Vic Zbar
David Brown is a Senior Project Manager, and Barbara Bereznicki a Project Officer, at Curriculum Corporation. Vic Zbar is an independent consultant and writer.

The Context for the Values Education Study

National commitment and debate

Internationally and nationally, there is clearly increasing engagement and discourse about schools and their role in the formation of the values young people will live by.

In the national context there is a strong and commonly held commitment to values education by all key stakeholders of Australian education. This is most notably reflected in the National Goals for Schooling, the Adelaide declaration made by all State Education Ministers in 1999. In New South Wales, the Department of Education's The Values We Teach, 1991 and The Values of NSW Public Schools, 2001, emphasise the importance of values in public education for social cohesion. Western Australia's Curriculum Council has made an even more concerted attempt to establish core values in the curriculum, as has Tasmania through its Essential Learnings framework.

Social and political landscape.

It seems the revived attention arises, in part, from the perception that traditional sources, authorities and influences for inculcating values have lost their mandate with our children. In the public conversation about values education, reference is made to factors such as the declining influence of formal religion and churches, the collapse of the family and community structures, the emergent power of media-nurtured youth cultures, and the changes to labour markets, including the erosion of predictable, stable career structures. Social manifestations of youth in crisis such as increasing youth homelessness, substance abuse, violence and youth suicide have both heightened the urgency and underlined the perplexing nature of the problems faced by schools in the values education domain. Politically, since the 1990s, there has also been concern about our students' declining knowledge and valuing of our democratic system of government, manifested by declining participation in voting and in political parties.

In this context, schools face a range of challenges: how to increase student engagement and minimise student disconnection to schooling; how to tackle violence, anti-social behaviour and behaviour management issues; how to improve student and staff health and well-being; how to foster improved relationships; how to build student resilience as a antidote to youth suicide and youth substance abuse; how to arrest declining youth civic participation; how to foster student empowerment; and how to reform whole-school cultures.

The Values Education Study (VES)

The Values Education Study (VES) was commissioned by the Commonwealth Minister for Education, Science and Training after agreement with the State and Territory Ministers at the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA).

Curriculum Corporation was engaged in late 2002 to conduct the Study, analyse the data and develop a draft Final Report to submit to the Department. In November 2003, the Minister, Dr Brendan Nelson, released the Final Report for public consideration.


The purpose of the Study was to

  • enable schools to develop, demonstrate and document current practice in values education
  • provide an informed basis for promoting improved values education in Australian schools
  • make recommendations on a set of principles and a framework for improved values education in Australian schools.

Defining 'Values' and 'values education'

For the purposes of discussion, the VES broadly defined 'values' as 'the principles and fundamental convictions which act as general guides to behaviour, the standards by which particular actions are judged as good or desirable' (Halstead and Taylor, 2000). The definition of 'Values education' underpinning the Study refers to any explicit and/or implicit school-based activity to promote student understanding and knowledge of values, and to inculcate the skills and dispositions of students to enact particular values as individuals and as members of the wider community.

The work of the Values Education Study

The study took the form of a qualitative investigation comprising three components.

The Literature Review

Firstly, a comprehensive review of relevant local and overseas research literature was undertaken to inform the analysis and discussion of current values education practice in Australian schools.

The Literature Review revealed that there has been a great deal written about values education, but that sound evidence-based conclusions are hard to find. A key issue was whether or not it is possible to establish a meaningful set of core values that an education system can 'sign up' to. Debate also rages about whether explicit values can be taught as part of a curriculum with clearly articulated content, pedagogy and assessment regimes or whether values education is really about implicit inculcation.

There are ideological lines in the sand here too. The 'Character Education' movement that has emerged from America argues for explicit values education with a generally didactic style. In their view education needs to deliver to students a clear direction about 'right behaviour' and a precise guide on community expectations. In contrast the cognitive development school of thinking, largely reflecting John Dewey's philosophy, argues for a less prescriptive approach, where the school's responsibility is to develop students' analytical and critical capacities so they can ultimately choose and act on their own internal values.

The work of the Project Schools

Secondly, action research projects were initiated in a range of schools across Australia. Commonwealth grants enabled schools to develop, demonstrate and then document what they are doing to support and provide effective values education to students.

There were 50 projects, involving 69 schools - primary and secondary, government and non-government, urban, rural and remote - representing all States and Territories, with some working in clusters and others operating on their own.

Generally, there were three types of groupings.
1. The first group focused on the processes of establishing, implementing and monitoring the values education regimes at their schools, through measures such as audits to identify the values that they were fostering in their curriculum, their policies and their governance, and reviews of school mission statements and key policy documents.
2. The second project group broadly focused on using various forms of values education as an approach to building student resilience and addressing targeted issues in student behaviour, disengagement with school, conflicts within school, safety and general school community well-being.
3. The third group identified an existing values education program - with its package of teaching and learning activities, class materials and associated professional development - and applied it across areas of the school.

While we could not expect more than a documented snapshot of a work in progress, the Study revealed a rich and various landscape in values education.

The Online survey

Thirdly, an online survey was conducted with a group of non-grant schools to determine the values the community expects Australian schools to foster.

Parents, teachers and students from each school were asked to nominate the ten most important values from a list of 28. Surprisingly, there was a remarkable correspondence between the responses of all three groups. The following ten values appeared consistently in the first ten for all three groups surveyed:1. Responsibility
2. Respect
3. Honesty
4. Tolerance
5. Equality
6. Freedom
7. Compassion
8. Happiness
9. Excellence
10. Peace

Students most frequently placed honesty as the most important value, followed by freedom, respect, happiness and responsibility. Staff and parents placed responsibility as the most important value, followed by respect, honesty, tolerance and equality. Interestingly, parents and staff manifested exactly the same results for the first five most important values they most seek to foster. On the downside, the values least nominated as important by students were democratic values (well last on the list of 28) and service to others (second last).


There are a number of key conclusions and recommendations that have emerged from the Values Education Study:
  • All schools are in the business of values education, and any notion that schools are, or ought to be, values free or values neutral is a disposable myth
  • Establishing a consensus on shared values is possible and is being achieved at the local level through a range of processes. The Final Report identifies a group of shared values which could be a possible starting point for school discussions
  • An underpinning vision for improved values education in Australian schools could further enhance the holistic growth of healthy, engaged students, support the operation of safe, inclusive and harmonious schools and nurture a vibrant, cohesive and civil Australian society
  • There are no single answers, no silver bullets - values education can be of many modes and many approaches
  • Some guiding principles for improved provision of values education in Australian schools might include:
  • recognition that values education is best developed with a whole-school, total-school culture approach
  • promoting engagement of school staff, parents and students in a school-based cycle of reflection-articulation-publication-enactment of its values
  • recognition of the diversity of values and the value of diversity in school communities, and for the need to negotiate a set of common shared values within this diversity
  • recognition that school-based values education is more effective when the values espoused are congruent and consistent with the values enacted within the total-school environment
  • recognition that values interact with and are integral to all key learning areas, and that all teachers are teachers of values even though schools may choose not to engage in syllabus-specific values teaching and learning
  • the need to support effective teacher professional development and resourcing in values education.
  • The 2003 Values Education Study has revealed a broad range of varied and excellent practices and approaches to values education in Australian schools. The Study clearly demonstrates how school communities in all jurisdictions are trying to utilize values-based education to enrich students' holistic development and to respond constructively and positively to a range of contemporary schooling challenges.

    The Values Education Study Report and Executive Summary are available through 2003 School Education Publications, Department of Education, Science and Training, and through the Values Education Study website, Curriculum Corporation.


    In November 2003, concurrent with the release of the Report, the Minister, Dr Brendan Nelson, announced additional funding of $316,000, which will 'enable us to enhance values education through increased website support for all schools and a national forum to be held in early 2004 to consider the study's findings and to build on existing school practices.' The forum is scheduled to be held on 28-29 April 2004. Details will be available from the Values Education Study website.

    This article is an edited and updated excerpt from 'A can of worms and other stories: the Values Education Study 2003', which appeared in
    Ethos, vol. 11, no.3, September 2003.

    You are welcome to comment on articles in Curriculum Leadership by sending a
    contribution to the Letters section

    The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training which funded the Values Education Study.

    Authors and contacts
    Mr David Brown, Senior Project Manager, Curriculum Corporation PO Box 177 Carlton South Vic 3053; david.brown@curriculum.edu.au

    Ms Barbara Bereznicki, Project Officer, Curriculum Corporation PO Box 177 Carlton South Vic 3053; barbara.bereznicki@curriculum.edu.au

    Mr Vic Zbar, education consultant and writer.

    Values Education Study acknowledgments:
    Final Report: Vic Zbar, writer
    Literature Review: Dr Carole Hooper
    Specialist advisors: Emeritus Professor David Aspin, Professor Terence Lovat, and Professor Brian Hill
    Members of the VES Advisory Committee and School Projects Selection Committee
    The participant project schools, survey schools and their communities.

  • KLA

    Subject Headings

    Case studies
    Civics education
    Conflict management
    Curriculum planning
    Education aims and objectives
    Education philosophy
    Education policy
    Educational evaluation
    Educational planning
    Educational sociology
    School and community
    School culture
    Values education (character education)