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Can you be an Ethical School Leader in the Current Education System?

When principled school leaders start making unethical decisions, we have to ask questions of the system itself...

  • Can you be an Ethical School Leader in the Current Education System?

What is ethical leadership in schools, do we need to define it, and if so, why?

I have been pondering this question ever since attending a packed event organised by a new group called the Ethical Leadership Commission

If this Commission’s existence is an admission that leadership is currently unethical, that should prompt some serious soul searching. But of course, it’s not that straightforward.

School leaders and teachers are mostly principled, decent people, and amongst the most widely respected in their communities and nationally (certainly when compared to say, politicians or journalists).

A tiny minority may have dishonest, self-serving motives; you only have to look at the spate of recent stories about fraudulent, even criminal, conduct in some academy chains to see that. But there are others who are pushed or lured into dubious behaviour by the very system in which they are expected to succeed.

High stakes

Pressure to rapidly improve performance, whether from a local authority, a regional schools commissioner, a multi-academy trust or the realities of parent choice is a direct route to the sorts of unethical ‘short cuts’ we now see so frequently aired in the press.

Thanks to the work of organisations like Education Datalab, we know that illegal exclusions and ‘off rolling’ challenging pupils is more widespread than previously realised. But these are just new features of what I call ‘the dark side’ of the schools market.

Manipulating intakes or the subjects pupils choose, teaching to the test, and even cheating are inevitable byproducts of asking schools to compete in a high stakes environment where professional status and security are permanently on the line.

These tactics, while maybe not going on in every establishment, are also hard to identify and root out, especially if a school is popular and apparently successful.

Nevertheless the eminent bodies behind the Commission range from head teacher organisations, Ofsted and the National Governor Association to UCL’s Institute for Education.

They are determined to have a go at defining what ethical leadership means, to give heads and governors confidence to resist temptation when faced by difficult decisions under pressure.

First steps

Around 100 pathfinder schools are already working with the framework, which involves ethical audits on leadership and management, challenging questions for schools about how they handle issues like exam malpractice, pupil behaviour, curriculum choices, the use of public funds and SEND.

An ethics forum will meet several times a year to consider the thorny dilemmas that leaders face in the context of the seven principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership, to which the commissioners have added trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage and optimism.

Will it work? The pathfinders are oversubscribed and I suspect there is a hunger amongst many leaders (head and governors) to have their existing ethical approaches, which may mean their results don’t look quite as good as some other schools, validated.

It is also vitally important. The nature of leadership is intricately bound up with school culture and impacts directly on the working environment, and pupil and staff wellbeing.

At a time of chronic recruitment and retention issues, happy schools will be integral to attracting and retaining staff, and rebuilding teaching as an attractive lifelong career choice.

Worth a try

My hunch is that to be really successful it will need critical mass, and professionals prepared to have difficult conversations with themselves and possibly with their (competing) neighbours, about issues that affect everyone locally.

It will also have to work in lockstep with changes elsewhere in the education system. Proposed changes to the Ofsted framework are a positive first step, but the pressured competitive environment is a three-legged stool; performance tables and the way parent choice is exercised also contribute to what can be a toxic culture.

But who can fault anyone willing to try? There is a growing sense that, with the pressure of funding cuts and teacher shortages, the school system is near breaking point. Anything that works within those bleak parameters to reinvigorate the profession can only be welcomed.


Fiona Millar is a columnist for The Guardian and a co-founder of the Local Schools Network; for more information, visit fionamillar.com or follow @schooltruth.

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