The biggest threat to ethical school leadership? Control-freak ministers

Intense pressure from government can be a catalyst for unethical behaviour from leaders, warns Bernard Trafford

Controlling government ministers_editorial

I’m forever bewailing the shortcomings of government and policymakers. I know, it’s easy to criticise and much harder to suggest viable solutions to perceived problems. So it was inspiring, back in January, to see the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) produce the report from its commission for ethical leadership in education.

This admirable panel has defined a framework for ethical leadership – a number of qualities essential to leaders: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness and honesty.

Taking them out of order, the need for honesty and openness is self-evident. Nonetheless, they must be listed in case they’re overlooked. I once heard a minister insist that the primary duty of a school leader was to balance the books – mercifully not a skill listed in the ASCL framework.

Next come objectivity and integrity – the requirement for leaders to be impartial and fair, avoid discrimination or bias in all decisions and be entirely open about possible conflicts of interest, relationships, obligations to people or organisations that might influence them. Right.

"Accountability" reminds leaders that they are accountable to the public and must submit themselves to necessary scrutiny. One can see how pressure to get results might create conflict with "selflessness" (top of the commission’s list), which requires leaders to act solely in the interests of children and young people.

To support these necessary qualities, the commission lists seven personal “characteristics or virtues”: trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage and optimism.

The last two can be a challenge. How many times are school leaders obliged to pluck up the courage to fight government, parents, even a governing body or trust that doesn’t understand what’s really going on? They go into battle for what is right – to give the children in that school the best opportunities, both now and into the future, the best as they know them, not as imposed by the policymakers in power at the time.

So what’s this framework for? It won’t solve all the problems, but it does provide a basis on which to consider how, and even why, school leadership needs to be applied, evaluated and supported.  

'Genuine freedom rather than the illusion of it'

Recent years have seen (very few) senior multi-academy trust executives disciplined or prosecuted for improper financial practices, having confused personal gain (even running businesses on the side) with reward for a high-pressured job. If this stems from greed, other wrongdoing grows out of temptation and weakness.

A minority of schools and/or their leaders have excluded – covertly or shamelessly – pupils who were likely to have pulled their results down or, not to mince words, have cheated to improve the school's results. Why? From excessive ambition for the school or fear of job loss (not just at leadership level) if results slip.

This week, Andreas Schleicher, of Programme for International Student Assessment fame, shared with MPs his vision of educational challenges for the future. Arts could become more important than maths, Schleicher said, amid suggestions that we needed a new curriculum fit for tomorrow’s world.

Two more of his suggestions may have shocked the Education Select Committee members. High-stakes testing was bad for teachers in schools, he asserted; what we should do instead is raise the stakes (I’d prefer to say the aspirations/ambitions) for pupils. Next, he claimed UK private schools were better at 21st-century skills than maintained/state schools.

You could lay the latter issue at the door of better resourcing or even pushy parents. But I’d look beyond both of those old chestnuts. If you accept Schleicher’s view, I’d suggest that independents “do character” and raise aspirations so well because they concentrate on them.

They can do so because they aren’t harried, pressured or overburdened in the way state school leaders are.

Notwithstanding labyrinthine regulation, independent school leaders are able to maintain just enough distance from government to allow them to remember their own vocation and mission, driven consciously or instinctively by those very qualities, characteristics and values identified by the ASCL commission.

It’s that space that makes the difference: genuine – if not unlimited – freedom rather than the illusion of it that is oft-trumpeted in the rhetoric of control-freak ministers.

The government should embrace the commission’s framework, and create the space for it to be an effective and inspirational driver in all schools.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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