How do you set moral standards without being judgmental? The findings of a survey of the ethical values and attitudes of 10,000 teenagers across England and Wales makes sobering reading. A quarter of those questioned in the Should Ethics Be Taught? survey thought it was acceptable to cheat in exams or dodge fares; one in nine believe that there is nothing wrong with shoplifting.
The survey coincides with this week's launch of the www.moneyandmorals.org website. Money and Morals is a spin-off project of JABE - the Jewish Association of Business Ethics. The initiative started 15 years ago when we took our Money and Morals programme into the wider community and were bombarded by requests from secondary schools for educational materials.
Our survey was carried out in association with Professor Leslie J Francis of Warwick University's Religions and Education research unit and shows a rise in unethical behaviour among 13- to 15-year-olds compared to our previous survey a decade ago. Turn this on its head and you will realise that the vast majority of students are both honest and sensitive to moral dilemmas but this still leaves a sizeable number who continue to believe that unethical behaviour is acceptable.
On a positive note, the survey reveals that 90 per cent of those questioned believe that a good work ethic is important. What is particularly heartening about the survey is that 80 per cent of those questioned think they can do something to change the world's problems and want to reach the top of their profession. Students were generally committed to being conscientious and willing to contribute to wider society. Key findings also show a rise in social responsibility.
Teachers and parents often ask me whether ethics is a subject that needs to be taught in schools or if young people are able to absorb the examples set for them at home. The Should Ethics Be Taught? survey clearly shows that there is a need for an ethical framework to be incorporated into the national curriculum to help prepare students for the workplace.
These are real issues that need to be addressed. I hear pupils in schools say: "If I was short of money, I'd take a couple of hair bands from Top Shop, I mean, they won't notice." Equally worrying, are beliefs such as: "You have to be ruthless to succeed in business."
That is why I believe our programmes are so important - if people are less than honest then the trust in society breaks down. One student, who worked in a shop, saw two boys take a notebook and pencils then leave without paying. Later, he told his teacher, he ran after them and persuaded them to return the goods. He said that, without Money and Morals, he would have turned a blind eye.
I am particularly proud of our Jewish schools, where the teaching of morals and ethics is high on their agenda (the Money and Morals website has a section on Jewish sources). That is not to say that other schools and their pupils do not share equally high values - and no community can claim to be immune to social ills.
The new interactive website will enable every secondary school in the country to access our programmes which include over 100 ethical dilemmas to debate in class, all of which are based on real-life scenarios. Case studies focus on issues such as lying on a CV, confidentiality, conflict of interest, taking small items of stationery and questionable sales practices.
Today's students are tomorrow's employees, leaders and decision-makers, and exploring business ethics helps them to understand the importance of honesty, integrity and social responsibility. Teaching ethics to students will help them in their future lives.