Leading by example?

Geoff Barton (General Secretary, ASCL) argues that ethical leadership must move beyond exhortation

1. Surely the centrality of ethics in school leadership is a ‘sine qua non’? What are the factors which have led to the concept becoming an issue of topical debate?

It’s a good question. And it’s one that I’m sure many people outside education – parents, for example – and, indeed, many people within education will have wondered about. After all, if we needed to establish an Ethical Leadership Commission in the first place, was it an admission that there’s been a spate of unethical leadership?

To which the answer is, of course, yes and no. In reality, as long as there have been organisations – companies, associations, businesses, societies, even trade unions – there will have been a majority of people doing the right things and, just occasionally, a few doing things that, frankly, they shouldn’t be doing.

And that was the big risk in setting up the Commission – of implying that parts of the education sector had become an outpost of the Wild West in which related-party

transactions or mega-salaries for swaggering chief executives or routine ‘offrolling’ of young people to improve league table performance had become the norm.

They hadn’t and they haven’t, but in a fragmented state system, with a media quick to find and expose examples of bad things, it felt right that we re-established some agreed norms.

That’s why the Ethical Leadership Commission drew in representatives from a range of organisations – Ofsted, the Chartered College, the National Governance Association, other unions, HMC and others. The idea was never to set up a task force which would point a finger and call out colleagues who didn’t meet our standards. Instead, more fundamentally, it was to ask ourselves this question: ‘If we accept that we have an atomised education system, what are the values, behaviours and expectations that we have in common, that we should expect of each other?’

We believe this was important for helping to build up public trust in leaders and their governance against a backdrop of occasional sniping. But we also think there’s another, less defensive justification. If system leadership means anything, then it must be about leaders being less passive, less managerial. So part of the process was a call to arms: what are our values and how do we enact them?

The Ethical Leadership Commission lasted for one year and its work is complete. It leaves behind it three work-strands:

A. A pathfinder project has been launched through the National Governance Association (NGA) which invites school leaders to sign up to the Framework and provides training resources about how to build its values and virtues into working practices.

B. The Framework will be embedded in leadership and governance programmes developed by the organisations involved in the commission and hopefully, over time, throughout the teacher and leadership development landscape.

C. An ethics forum will be established at the Chartered College of Teaching to discuss and disseminate thinking about ethical issues in education leadership.

Geoff Barton speaking at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) conference.

2. What characteristics and behaviours might “ethically sound” people demonstrate? What types of pressure might derail the well-intentioned?

I’d be avoiding using labels like ‘ethically sound people’. One of the risks inherent in this project is a group of leaders clambering onto the moral high ground in order to wag their fingers at another group.

Instead, the Commission was conscious that there are many pressures on leaders – pressures generated through the way our institutions are judged, the way we spend money, the way we make decisions. Some of these, as the question puts it, can exert some pressure to make decisions that are in the interests of the institution’s reputation rather than the pupil’s academic or personal wellbeing – which is where, for example, tales of off-rolling have surfaced.

So the commission aimed to set out some of the language that would underpin principled decision-making. Here’s a flavour:

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

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.

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.

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.

Again, some readers will think this all seems a bit fatuous, a bit worthy, a bit self-regarding.

All I would say is this: that as a trade union our core function is to support members. We get to see examples of where decisions made by leaders or governors or trustees can lead to severe ‘derailing’ of careers, of reputations. That’s why I’d be slow to criticise a framework that aims to restore notions of public service and to make these more explicit than perhaps they previously have needed to be.

3. Are there circumstances where honesty is not necessarily the best policy in school leadership and management? For example, how do you judge when to turn a blind eye and when to put your foot down?

Of course. One of the ongoing dilemmas in leadership is knowing what to notice and what to ignore, possibly strategically as it’s an issue which may be important but less important than the issue you’re dealing with. Similarly, because schools and colleges are institutions comprising people, there will always be occasions when tact counts for more than direct truth – when we articulate praise or agreement with certain reluctance. This isn’t lying. It isn’t cowardice. It’s doing what leaders do – choosing what the priorities are for the moment, knowing that they might in due course change.

None of this is easily taught, and the report of the Ethical Leadership Commission is most definitely not intended as a training manual, to be worked through case by case. But the establishment of an ethics forum, and the materials for governing boards, do mean that there are opportunities for leadership teams and those who hold them accountable to reflect on what our shared values are, how they apply in practice, and how we might refine our systems and processes to ensure that – whatever the external or internal pressures, whatever the various measures might do to encourage short-cuts or dubious conduct.