How do you know when your leadership decision is the right one?

The ASCL's framework for ethical leadership aims to support leaders with those difficult choices, writes Carolyn Roberts

A new framework has been produced to help school leaders make ethical decisions

In 2017, the Association of School and College Leaders launched the ethical leadership commission. Why? To fill a gap.

We have teacher standards and headteacher standards but we have no specific framework about ethics in educational leadership. Members of ASCL and others felt that in an educational landscape of high stakes and complex accountability systems, there has never been a more important time for such a framework.

As school and college leaders, our lives are full of ambiguity and impossible choices; we weigh the needs of one child against hundreds, we make hard decisions with insufficient funding, we deal with traumatised children and desperate parents. We manage hard-pressed, devoted and occasionally truculent colleagues. We are the gatekeepers for educational standards and happy communities that build up confident neighbourhoods. We make all our decisions under scrutiny as diligent professionals and the watchful eyes of the young. What we do matters, but how we do it matters even more.

Imagine the most difficult decisions you make, those that wake you at two in the morning and again at three and four. Choices that only you can make. Decisions that could derail a child’s education, unravel his home or finish a career. Decisions when you have to do what’s right without KPIs or quality standards. How do you know if your choice is right?

Ethical school leadership

So, the Ethical Leadership Commission set about developing a framework to help support school and college leaders to make those difficult decisions. A framework based not on the metrics of accountability systems but on the language of ethics.

We began with the Standards in Public Life – the so-called "Nolan principles" – which already bind us by virtue of our public service: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

But we wanted to go further. We wanted to reassure leaders that there are times when old-fashioned words are necessary, important and perfectly reasonable. Most of all, we wanted to describe virtues for us that we also want for our children.

The words we chose were trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage, optimism. Details on what these words mean in schools and for leaders can be found here. 

Together with the Principles for Public Life, they make up the Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education.

All of which brings us to today. Today the Ethical Leadership Commission holds a summit in London and unveils the final report.

We‘ve formed a Pathfinder Programme for schools, trusts and boards to recognise the values and virtues needed in decision-making. We hope participants will identify themselves publicly as colleagues who try to work in accordance with the framework. Nearly 100 schools have already signed up.

We’ll work with government and providers to embed the framework in leadership and teacher training. We’ll set up a space to discuss ethical issues in an ethics forum, open to anyone. We’ll consider issues that concern us most or hover on the horizon, and offer framework guidance which we hope colleagues will find helpful.

We are none of us perfect. Professionalism requires us to make judgements in situations of unavoidable ambiguity. The ELC’s Framework aims to offer support in those difficult times.

Why does it matter? Schools are where society looks after its young until they take on the mantle of adult citizenship. We need to be confident that we are building the kind of society we all want to live in. We hope that the language of ethics will help us do that.

Carolyn Roberts is the chair of the Ethical Leadership Commission

Find out more about the work of the Ethical Leadership Commission here

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