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What are the values and principles that underpin great leadership? Could expressing those make a better education system? Here ASCL Honorary Secretary Carolyn Roberts shares her thoughts and asks for yours on proposals for a new Commission on Ethical Leadership in Education.
At ASCL Annual Conference we launched a year-long project on Ethical Leadership in Education. I hope that this piece gives background to that project, the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of it, and what we hope to achieve on such a huge topic in such a short time. At the heart of the project is a desire to ensure that ASCL members take the lead in developing this proposal, a desire to take us forward in a self-improving system as highlighted in ASCL’s blueprint:
“The education system is world-class and self-improving with strong school-led features. School leaders, sensing an emergent model, stepped up to take forward the transformation agenda, pursuing the goal of a high-quality broad and balanced education for all young people. They took on a shared responsibility for the quality of education of all young people in their area, not just those in their own school.”
(Leading the Way: ASCL Blueprint for a Self-Improving System www.ascl.org.uk/blueprint)
All school and college leaders are public servants, and colleagues in independent schools serve their communities. We are not only expected to lead our schools and colleges but also to model something precious and good for the future so that young people understand the world and how to change it for the better. So, how do we do this?
The nation trusts us to form young people into the best that they can be. The public expects us to know what kind of example we should set them, but do we? How do we know what’s right or wrong?
The Teacher Standards are clear on the skills and abilities that teachers should have but rather vague on ethical behaviour, on aspects of right and wrong: “A teacher is expected to demonstrate consistently high standards of personal and professional conduct … Teachers uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour within and outside school.”
The Headteacher Standards for Excellence cover similar ground: “Headteachers occupy an influential position in society and shape the teaching profession. They are lead professionals and significant role models within the communities they serve. Headteachers, together with those responsible for governance, are guardians of the nation’s schools.”
1. Hold and articulate clear values and moral purpose, focused on providing a world class education for the pupils they serve.
2. Demonstrate optimistic personal behaviour, positive relationships and attitudes towards their pupils and staff, and towards parents, governors and members of the local community.
3. Lead by example – with integrity, creativity, resilience, and clarity – drawing on their own scholarship, expertise and skills, and that of those around them.”
Excellent sentiments, but what do they actually mean? What are the component parts of a ‘world-class education’? Results by any means necessary, or is education more than that? We’d like young people to be competitors on the world stage, but do we want to do it like they do it in Shanghai? The ‘tiger’ approach is getting a bit of traction in the blogosphere at the moment: how do we feel about that? When we are asked to show resilience, what does that mean? Resilience in the face of huge funding problems? Resilience as compliance?
We’ve been challenged to demonstrate (our long-standing) commitment to character education in schools recently, and we’ve carefully made sense of fundamental ‘British values’. We’re experts at setting the ethos for our schools and colleges and holding children and young people to account to high behavioural standards.
We can discuss our aims and visions and knock-up a natty slogan, cheesy or sublime, at the drop of a hat. We’re happy to talk to colleagues about what we expect – especially when something has gone a bit pear-shaped – and we can be very clear with parents when we feel that a child would benefit from a better example. But upon what do we build our assertions: what do we believe in? What kind of behaviour is expected of us, and what kind of example should we set? How do we match up to Kipling’s old observation?
“No printed word, nor spoken plea can teach young minds what they should be. Not all the books on all the shelves – but what the teachers are themselves.”
Colleagues in faith schools know a bit about this. Whether they share the school’s faith or not, the ethical principles are clear, usually ancient. When push comes to shove, tradition, orthodoxy, shared commitment or an interpretation of a fundamental text, may shed light on an ambiguous matter.
Those of us in the secular sector have no such common language, except for the broad aspirations above, no forum in which to test or explore the conundrums of good or bad, right or wrong, no safe space beyond the regulators to test behaviour and hold one another to account.
Code of ethics
Ethics is the study of right and wrong, of the duties, responsibilities and virtues that build up our common life. We think that there’s some rewarding, important, interesting and perhaps overdue work to be done on ethics in education. We’d like to open a conversation to share and establish our common principles, to codify the immeasurable. Because if we believe that there is something crucially important about the kind of example we set to young people, shouldn’t we have an idea about right and wrong, good and bad?
Other professional groups are on to it. The medical Royal Colleges have their codes built upon the Hippocratic Oath. The Law Society has recently created a suite of interactive ethical scenarios brilliantly featuring Ethel, the ethical guide, through dilemmas that solicitors may face in practice. The College of Policing has a code built on the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), which, theoretically, should bind us all. And, finally, businesses know that trustworthiness is key to success: the most stable businesses are ones where there is a high degree of accountability and explicit commitment to honesty. Therefore, we think it’s now our turn.
And we think it’s timely. New school structures mean that the model of the headteacher as public intellectual, known and trusted in every community, isn’t as clear as it was. We worry that the public finds it hard to understand our deregulated system now and we fear that Ofsted and the DfE regulate as if they can’t trust us. It’s sad to see public scandals that bring school and college leadership into disrepute. Losing public confidence would be disastrous for the young people we care for. We think we can hold one another to high standards of conduct better than we do now.
Have your say
We are setting up a commission to take our work on ethics forward. This time next year, we’d like to be able to propose a Code of Ethics for Education, so that together we’ll be able to talk to the public clearly about the ethics that we want to pass on to our young people. In order to achieve this, we need your help. If you would like to be involved in any way or if you would like to share your views on this extremely important issue, please email us at email@example.com and have your say.
Carolyn Roberts is ASCL Honorary Secretary and Headteacher of Thomas Tallis School in London.