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Finding our way through the Educational Moral Maze


I recently attended the Ethical Leadership Summit down in London. Take a look below at my summary of the event and how I am applying the learning in my role as the #youngishschoolgovernor

As Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) once stated ‘ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one is watching’. In an educational backdrop of high stakes accountability, balancing the challenge of children learning with their mental well being and school leaders pressured with ever squeezed budgets, how do we as school governors ensure that we have strong ethics embedded in our work?

It was this question that led to me attending last month the Ethical Leadership Summit. This was the second Summit, marking the one- year anniversary of the Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education. The summit focused on how this work is being developed by the National Governance Association, Chartered College of Teaching, and Association of School and College Leaders. The MAT where I am Trustee has several schools registered as pathfinders for this framework, which I passionately believe should be fundamental to all those in educational leadership positions.  It is also a view that is clearly shared nationally given that over 150 people were in attendance which ranged from governors, trustees, Head Teachers and CEOs of Multi Academies.

The framework has the following principles and virtues at its heart

  • Selflessness
  • Integrity
  • Objectivity
  • Accountability
  • Openness
  • Honesty
  • Leadership
  • Trust
  • Wisdom
  • Kindness
  • Justice
  • Service
  • Courage

Take a minute and reflect on these words. What do they mean to you? When did you last pause and take a moment to think about how you model these when governing? No doubt you will be familiar with most given they are structured around the Nolan seven principles of public life, now with an educational reworking including an additional six virtues.

As a school governing board, you may find it helpful to discuss this Framework and come up with both  a shared understanding as well as identifying ones your board closely align with.  If I take trust, this is one of the values I am particularly drawn to.  I consider how we as a school governing board remain rooted in being advocates for our children and young people, asking purposeful questions to always serve in their best interests. This is why our board meetings end with ‘What impact on our children’s lives have we made over the last 2½ hours’ ” (although the time duration of meetings can certainly vary if this last week is anything to go by!). We should all ensure we put the interests of young people first. Integrity is also high on my list- I pride myself in coming into and remaining in school governance for the right reasons. The past few weeks have involved particularly challenging areas of governance, but what is keeping me grounded (just!) is my belief that mine and the Board’s decisions are ethically sound for the benefit of all children and young people. There have been moments when I have struggled which then lead me to call on someone I trust to help inform a wise judgement (there are lots out there and I am forever grateful!). Always striving to be thoughtful and taking time to make the right decisions- whilst built on wisdom.

Back to the Summit….

Coming back to the Ethical Leadership Summit; the day was incredibly well put together in order to enable us all to think about ethical fundamentals in our work. Five schools shared their journeys as pathfinders in using the Framework to embed ethical leadership in their settings. Of particular interest to me was how Karen Cornell (assistant Head teacher at The Coleshill School)  worked with other schools across Warwickshire to create inclusive schools, sharing their incredible findings at the Summit that permanent exclusions across the county have reduced by 50%.

As a Trustee of a Catholic MAT one of the areas that I also particularly found interesting was the alignment of the Ethical Leadership Framework to Catholic Character Education.  The principal, Justine Barlow from Notre Dame Catholic Sixth Form has used the Framework to create both a leadership award for her pupils and a culture reflective of the values.  Their Stella Maris Leadership Award (in Latin meaning ‘Star of the Sea’) was a really interesting approach that clearly refreshed the College’s mission and ethos statement with pupils receiving over 2000 commendations for the award since September 2019.

Coming back to our MAT, we have adopted the Framework into the heart of our new Wellbeing strategy launched this year. The language is both adopted and considered when we discuss all our pupils – in particular vulnerable students- and their potential pathways to ensure our decisions are ethically sound and in their interest.  This provides a valuable framework and structure to conversations, which are incredibly helpful from a governing body perspective through our questioning and constructive challenge. As school governors we need to ensure we are fully inclusive of diverse pupils, families and communities as well as taking moral action to promote social justice. In Kenneth Strike’s book Ethical Leadership in schools; creating community in an environment of accountability his ‘big tented’ view of education in a democratic society includes good communities, ethical decision making, evidence based practice, fair processes, informed debate and full inclusion of all community members, especially those marginalized by exclusion and poverty.  Strike’s definition of ethical leadership is ‘the art of creating good school communities’ and the Summit certainly encouraged me to reflect on whether we know what is happening in our communities and how much more we can embrace communities to enrich the lives of our young people.

The Summit also provided opportunity to discuss ethical challenges schools are facing in their work and reflected on how the language and values of the Framework could help them overcome issues. This is a key area that we are starting to discuss at our board, asking ourselves what are our ethical dilemmas? What keeps us awake as school governors?  For me it is around how we ensure we are ambitious for all our learners whilst maintaining the highest standards across our schools. Geoff Barton[1] at the Summit highlighted the importance of having performance measures which incentivise and reward good behaviour rather than ‘expecting schools to do the right thing in spite of the system’.  He addressed the Summit with

We could achieve this objective simply by broadening the range of measures that are included in school performance tables. They might also look, for example, at how good a school is in supporting its most vulnerable pupils and their welfare; at how well it collaborates and works with other schools for the good of every child in the area; and about the extra-curricular programme it offers its pupils. This would be more useful and informative for parents than the current system with its narrow focus on test and exam results, and it would incentivise the right things’.

The Summit concluded with the stark reminder that  ‘Accountability is not enough: we have to do good’

Key questions for school governors that you may find helpful…..

  • What are the ethical dilemmas keeping you awake at night?
  • Are there barriers to school leaders being honest/trustworthy?
  • Do we know what is happening in our communities and how do we enrich experiences through collaboration between school and community?
  • Which of the values are we most connected/feel strongly too?


This blog first appeared on Victoria's blog: