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Are you an Ethical School Leader?

March 25, 2019, 17:01 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • We can look to official guidance for the ‘what’, but not the ‘how’ or ‘why’, says Carolyn Roberts – and that needs to change...
Are you an Ethical School Leader?

Schools are complicated institutions. They’re where society looks after its young until they’re old enough to take on the role of adult citizens – thus, we perform a very important social function for children of all ages.

On the one hand, we’re diligent public servants, but on the other, we’re also role models to the young. It’s not just a matter of what we do; how we do it will inevitably have an impact on the kind of citizens we’re generating for the future.

Having been a member of the ASCL executive for four years, something we’d grown concerned by was the publicity surrounding some school leadership decisions and their potential to undermine the respect in which school leaders are generally held.

Rather than examine specific issues or apportion blame, however, we wanted to highlight the way in which school leaders constantly make decisions under very tough, competing pressures. Our feeling was that developing a shared language leaders could use to navigate the moral maze had to be useful.

There’s plenty of guidance available concerning management responsibilities, styles and techniques. The National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers, for example, talks about leadership attributes and the way people lead institutions, but contains no guidance on the right decisions to make.

The Teachers’ Standards similarly offers lots of detail on how teachers should do their jobs properly, but under ‘Personal and professional conduct,’ it simply states that teachers should ‘ maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour’ without meaningfully expanding upon what that might mean.

We believed it would help devoted, yet busy and distracted decision makers if there were a framework, a common language of ethics that we could all share – something that would help us talk about the difficult decisions we all make each day. I therefore campaigned for the formation of an Ethical Leadership Commission within ASCL and subsequently chaired the 18-strong Commission that was appointed.

Moral purpose

It’s common now for people to talk about leading their schools with ‘moral purpose’ – which sounds great, but doesn’t actually mean anything. It merely assumes a shared sense of right and wrong and understanding of morality. As a profession, that’s something we may well have, but we wanted to give language to that notion and share it more explicitly.

In the Standards of Excellence for Headteachers, for example, there’s talk of how a headteacher should be ‘astute’; we prefer the word ‘wise.’ The advice mentions headteachers modelling ‘entrepreneurial’ approaches, but entrepreneurialism isn’t a moral trait – it’s an action. We’d prefer the word ‘service’.

It says that headteachers should provide environments that are focused on ‘safeguarding’, but doesn’t highlight the combination of kindness, justice and honesty required to make good safeguarding decisions.

The Commission initially began with the idea of putting together an ethical code, but by the end of our second meeting we’d decided this would be counterproductive. Leaders’ behaviour has become increasingly motivated by the need to meet performance indicators, and we didn’t want the same happening with considerations of ethical thought.

We wanted to formulate a language with which people could intelligently discuss the ethical dimensions of their decisions. We didn’t want to turn ethical behaviour itself into another tick box.

Setting an example

From the outset, the Commission avoided commenting on particular forms of organisation, qualifications or standards. We agreed that there are many successful ways of running schools, and instead wanted people to think more about the scope, depth and implications of their decisions – about what they might mean for our sense of right and wrong and for society as a whole. We didn’t want to proscribe a ‘right way’ of managing behaviour, admissions or finance.

The Framework consists of 14 words, the first seven of which (trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage, optimism) are derived from the Seven Principles of Public Life and changed very slightly to be more appropriate to education.

The latter set of words (see below this feature) are those personal virtues against which we want people to consider their actions. When you encounter a really difficult decision, the kind that keeps you awake at night, instead of thinking ‘What must I do according to regulations?’ think about what you ought to do. What’s the best way of setting an example to our young people?

Embedding the framework

The Ethical Leadership Commission has now ended, but the work of embedding the Framework within leadership practice will continue via the Pathfinder Project – a series of optional training sessions and reflections for governors, leadership teams and trust boards that’s being run by the National Governance Association.

We’re also seeking to influence the way teachers and school leaders are trained by working with Chartered College of Teaching, which is currently putting together a chartered leader programme and will soon be setting up an Ethics Forum.

The latter will hold open meetings several times a year, which will discuss issues raised through the Pathfinder Project and any developments in the profession that may affect the pressures on leaders’ decision-making. Our hope is for the Forum to provide an online presence and case studies that prompt wider reflection.

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, but an ethical leader will take very seriously his or her responsibility to society and the formation of young peoples’ character. They’ll never be content to simply say that they’ve followed instructions, because accountability isn’t enough – we have to do good.


The framework for ethical leadership in education

1. Selflessness

School and college leaders should act solely in the interest of children and young people.

2. Integrity

School and college leaders must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. Before acting and taking decisions, they must declare and resolve openly any perceived conflict of interest and relationships.

3. Objectivity

School and college leaders must act and take decisions impartially and fairly, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias. Leaders should be dispassionate, exercising judgement and analysis for the good of children and young people.

4. Accountability

School and college leaders are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

5. Openness

School and college leaders should expect to act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from scrutiny unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

6. Honesty

School and college leaders should be truthful.

7. Leadership

School and college leaders should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles, and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs. Leaders include both those who are paid to lead schools and colleges and those who volunteer to govern them.


Carolyn Roberts is the headteacher of Thomas Tallis School, London and the former chair of the Ethical Leadership Commission.

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