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Spiritual, Moral, Social, and Cultural Development

SMSC development: non-religious ‘spiritual’ development

The UK Department for Education’s statutory guidance National curriculum in England: framework for key stages 1 to 4 states that:

‘Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based and which:

  • promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society
  • prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life’

However, ‘spiritual’ is a problematic word for non-religious people.


‘Spiritual’ development became established in the Education Reform Act 1988 as one of the essential components of the curriculum, and was further established in the Education Act of 1992 as part of ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural development’ (SMSC). The 1994 OFSTED Handbook stated that ‘spiritual’ was not synonymous with ‘religious’, and this was futher confirmed in OFSTED guidance in 2004.

Some definitions of ‘spiritual’ development

‘Spiritual’ development, in this sense, involves:

  • the development of insights, principles, beliefs, attitudes and values which guide and motivate us. For some pupils, these will have a significant religious basis
  • a developing understanding of feelings and emotions which causes us to reflect and to learn
  • for all pupils, a developing recognition that their insights, principles, beliefs, attitudes and values should influence, inspire or guide them in life.

Some definitions

‘‘Spiritual’ development is the development of the non-material element of a human being which animates and sustains us and, depending on our point of view, either ends or continues in some form when we die. It is about the development of a sense of identity, self-worth, personal insight, meaning and purpose. It is about the development of a pupil’s ‘spirit’. Some people may call it the development of a pupil’s ‘soul’; others as the development of ‘personality’ or ‘character’.’ Ofsted Promoting and evaluating pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, March 2004

‘There is, in my view, a place for what might be called ‘the spiritual’ in education but it should be uncoupled from religion. It has to do with the cosmic shudder we all feel from time to time when contemplating the existence of life, especially our own self conscious life, and of the universe…If OFSTED wants evidential criteria to help its inspectors, it is what the arts and contemplation of nature can bring about rather than religious knowledge, which should be top of the list.’ Professor John White, Institute of Education, London.

‘The term ‘spiritual’ applies to all pupils. The potential for spiritual development is open to everyone and is not confined to the development of religious beliefs or conversion to a faith. To limit spiritual development in this way would be to exclude from its scope the majority of pupils in our schools who do not come from overtly religious backgrounds. The term needs to be seen as applying to something fundamental in the human condition… it has to do with the unique search for human identity…with the search for meaning and purpose in life and for values by which to live.’ Spiritual and Moral Development, National Curriculum Council discussion document, 1993

‘Spiritual development relates to that aspect of inner life through which pupils acquire insights into their personal existence which are of enduring worth. It is characterised by reflection, the attribution of meaning to experience, valuing a non-material dimension to life and intimations of an enduring reality. ‘Spiritual’ is not synonymous with ‘religious’; all areas of the curriculum may contribute to pupils’ spiritual development.’ OFSTED Handbook for the Inspection of Schools, 1994

Aspects of ‘spiritual’ development

Beliefs – Developing personal beliefs; appreciating that people have individual and shared beliefs on which they base their lives; developing sense of how personal beliefs contribute to personal identity.

A sense of awe, wonder and mystery – Being inspired by the natural world, mystery, or human achievement.

Experiencing feelings of transcendence – Feelings of ability to rise above everyday experience.

Search for meaning and purpose – Reflecting on the origin and purpose of life; responding to experiences of life such as achievement, beauty, suffering, and death.

Relationships – Recognising and valuing the worth of each individual; developing a sense of community, the ability to build up relationships with others.

Creativity – Expressing innermost thoughts and feelings through, for example, art, music, literature and crafts; exercising the imagination, inspiration, intuition, and insight.

Feelings and emotions – The sense of being moved by beauty or kindness; hurt by injustice or aggression; a growing awareness of when it is important to control emotions and feeling, and how to use such feeling as a source of growth.

Spiritual development in education – practicalities

Despite some differences of interpretation, there is considerable agreement on the inner and essentially private nature of spiritual experience, as well as on the positive nature of such experience and its contribution to psychological well-being. There is also some agreement that it may relate to individual responses to ultimate questions and be independent of religious belief. The difficulty of assessing inner development is clear – who can tell what is going on in someone’s mind when they are supposed to be reflecting deeply? And how would one test that spiritual development is being achieved? This has been acknowledged by the inspectorate in Wales:

‘Spiritual development is a difficult area to inspect. Effective provision for spiritual development depends on a curriculum and approaches to teaching which embody clear values and provide opportunities for pupils to gain understanding by developing a sense of curiosity through reflection on their own and other people’s lives and beliefs, their environment and the human condition. It relies on teachers receiving and valuing pupils’ ideas across the whole curriculum. Acts of worship play a particular part. To the extent that spiritual insights imply an awareness of how pupils relate to others, there is a strong link to both moral and social development.’ Handbook for the Inspection of Schools in Wales (OHMCI, Wales)

In guidance for inspectors the stress has been on judging the opportunities offered by schools for spiritual development, and responses:

‘Spiritual development is to be judged by how well the school promotes opportunities for pupils to reflect on aspects of their lives and the human condition through, for example, literature, music, art, science, religious education and collective worship, and how well the pupils respond.’ OFSTED Handbook, 1994

‘Schools that are encouraging pupils’ spiritual development are, therefore, likely to be:

  • giving pupils the opportunity to explore values and beliefs, including religious beliefs, and the way in which they affect peoples’ lives
  • where pupils already have religious beliefs, supporting and developing these beliefs in ways which are personal and relevant to them
  • encouraging pupils to explore and develop what animates themselves and others
  • encouraging pupils to reflect and learn from reflection
  • giving pupils the opportunity to understand human feelings and emotions, the way they affect people and how an understanding of them can be helpful
  • developing a climate or ethos within which all pupils can grow and flourish, respect others and be respected
  • accommodating difference and respecting the integrity of individuals
  • promoting teaching styles which:
  • value pupils’ questions and give them space for their own thoughts, ideas and concerns
  • enable pupils to make connections between aspects of their learning
  • encourage pupils to relate their learning to a wider frame of reference – for example, asking ‘why?’, ‘how?’ and ‘where?’ as well as ‘what?’’

Promoting and evaluating pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (Ofsted, March 2004)

All Curriculum subjects including Religious Education (RE) provide opportunities to promote pupils’ SMSC development. This can include (but is not limited to) reflections within science lessons, music and art, collective worship, and in the school ethos.

‘In thinking about how to provide opportunities for spiritual growth, is it too fanciful to suggest that a ‘quiet minute’ should happen as a structured component of many school activities and learning experiences? Many schools now have their own wildlife area: how about sitting down under a tree after a nature walk around it? Or trying to take in what a hundred million years means when looking at pre-Cambrian rocks on a Geography field trip? What about a quiet few minutes to wonder at the beauty and intricacy of crystal structures viewed through a microscope? And on a visit to an art gallery, might not the occasional quiet time to absorb the beauty of art… provide a time for reflection and refreshment of the spirit?’ John White, BHA member, in Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child: a Humanist Perspective , 1996

Across the curriculum, it is possible to offer experiences which promote reflection, self-awareness, and personal development, feelings of awe and wonder, a sense of unity with other human beings.

What does Ofsted say?

Ofsted, in its Subsidiary guidance supporting the inspection of maintained schools and academies (2013), outlines what inspectors should looks for when it comes to SMSC development.

1. ‘Pupils’ spiritual development is shown by their:

  • beliefs, religious or otherwise, which inform their perspective on life and their interest in and respect for different people’s feelings and values
  • sense of enjoyment and fascination in learning about themselves, others and the world around them, including the intangible
  •  use of imagination and creativity in their learning
  • willingness to reflect on their experiences.

2. Pupils’ moral development is shown by their:

  • ability to recognise the difference between right and wrong and their readiness to apply this understanding in their own lives
  • understanding of the consequences of their actions
  • interest in investigating, and offering reasoned views about, moral and ethical issues.

3. Pupils’ social development is shown by their:

  • use of a range of social skills in different contexts, including working and socialising with pupils from different religious, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds
  • willingness to participate in a variety of social settings, including by volunteering, cooperating well with others and being able to resolve conflicts effectively
  • interest in, and understanding of, the way communities and societies function at a variety of levels.

4. Pupils’ cultural development is shown by their:

  • understanding and appreciation of the wide range of cultural influences that have shaped their own heritage
  • willingness to participate in, and respond to, for example, artistic, musical, sporting, mathematical, technological, scientific and cultural opportunities
  • interest in exploring, understanding of, and respect for cultural diversity and the extent to which they understand, accept, respect and celebrate diversity, as shown by their attitudes towards different religious, ethnic and socio-economic groups in the local, national and global communities.’

What does the Department for Education say?

All National Curriculum subjects provide opportunities to promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Explicit opportunities to promote pupils’ development in these areas are provided in religious education and the non-statutory framework for personal, social and health education (PSHE) and citizenship. A significant contribution is also made by school ethos, effective relationships throughout the school, collective worship, and other curriculum activities.

Spiritual development

Pupils’ spiritual development involves the growth of their sense of self, their unique potential, their understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and their will to achieve. As their curiosity about themselves and their place in the world increases, they try to answer for themselves some of life’s fundamental questions. They develop the knowledge, skills, understanding, qualities and attitudes they need to foster their own inner lives and non-material wellbeing.

Moral development

Pupils’ moral development involves pupils acquiring an understanding of the difference between right and wrong and of moral conflict, a concern for others and the will to do what is right. They are able and willing to reflect on the consequences of their actions and learn how to forgive themselves and others. They develop the knowledge, skills and understanding, qualities and attitudes they need in order to make responsible moral decisions and act on them.

Social development

Pupils’ social development involves pupils acquiring an understanding of the responsibilities and rights of being members of families and communities (local, national and global), and an ability to relate to others and to work with others for the common good. They display a sense of belonging and an increasing willingness to participate. They develop the knowledge, skills, understanding, qualities and attitudes they need to make an active contribution to the democratic process in each of their communities.

Cultural development

Pupils’ cultural development involves pupils acquiring an understanding of cultural traditions and an ability to appreciate and respond to a variety of aesthetic experiences. They acquire a respect for their own culture and that of others, an interest in others’ ways of doing things and curiosity about differences. They develop the knowledge, skills, understanding, qualities and attitudes they need to understand, appreciate and contribute to culture.

Promoting personal, social, health and economic education and citizenship

The non-statutory guidelines for PSHE (as it is known in England)/PSE (as it is known in Wales) and citizenship are designed to help schools establish coherence and consistency, and to promote curriculum continuity and progression in pupils’ learning.

See also

Further Reading

Humanism for Schools

Humanism is a non-religious approach to life, which the 2013 national framework for RE in England recommends be studied in schools as an example of a 'non-religious worldview'.

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