The moral maze - Ethical Leadership

From Leader Magazine Spring Term 2 2019 issue

Chair of ASCL’s Ethical Leadership Commission Carolyn Roberts writes about the practical programmes that school and college leaders can join to help them navigate through the moral maze.

What was the last difficult decision you made? Was it an impossible choice, or did you make the wrong one? How long did it take? How much sleep did you lose? How often did you kick yourself?

As school and college leaders, we have very little spare time. On top of that, we’re practical souls, so if there’s something extra to think about, it’d better be useful. Therefore, in 2017, the ASCL Ethical Leadership Commission (ELC) was established, because of concerns expressed by ASCL members and others about the lack of guiding principles for ethical leadership in education.

The commission included senior representatives across the education sector and its final report, Navigating the Educational Moral Maze (, was launched at a summit at the University College London (UCL) Institute of Education (IOE) in London on 25 January 2019. The resulting Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education provides the profession with principles to support leaders in their decision-making and in calling out unethical behaviour.

The framework is designed to be practical and useful. Yes, we have a list of fine words in Nolan’s Principles of Public Life, of selflessness, integrity, openness, objectivity, accountability, honesty and leadership and the virtues of trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage and optimism. However, the framework’s usefulness will be in helping hard-pressed school and college leaders cut through competing pressures surrounding decision-making, think clearly about our motivations and vocations and act rightly.

Pathfinder Programme

The first practical project to support this is the Pathfinder Programme. This is a review and reflection programme for governors and trust boards, as well as school and college leadership teams, to help them look at the principles underpinning the decisions they make. There are thought-provoking training materials suitable for a single session or a whole year, in which boards compare their avowed intents – their vision statements and their aims – with the framework’s simple ethical principles. We hope that schools and colleges will make a public commitment to follow the framework and test their decisionmaking against our timeless human values. Case studies form a large part of the Pathfinder Programme and we hope you will find the starters stimulating and contribute to building up more. Your dilemma, your sleepless night, your careful solution thought through rationally and kindly, will be of real help to another leader in hard times.

You can become a Pathfinder through the National Governance Association (NGA) by emailing

Ethics Forum

Those dilemmas drive our whole education system. Because we look after children and young people in groups, sometimes very large groups, we are always balancing the needs of the one against the needs of the many. The adults in our communities also have needs, and it is in supporting and moderating those that the children are also served. External pressures, usually nationally driven, add to the deafening competing demands. Too often as leaders, we hear ourselves thinking, “I know what I’d like to do, but this is what I have to do.”

So, our second participation project is the Ethics Forum, which will be the home of ethical debate for the profession. This will help us reflect not only on our own actions and diligent public servants and trusted educators, but also consider the example we set to our young people, so we can really be confident in our development of future citizens.

The forum will fulfil several important tasks. It will be a place where dilemmas, developments and problems in education leadership are discussed away from the regulators, and where profession-led guidance is developed through regular seminars and conferences. Knowing what we do about perverse incentives, the forum will scan the horizon for accountability proposals likely to affect or even compromise leaders’ behaviour. It will develop ethics-related training materials and discussion points in our journals and newsletters. Of course, the Pathfinder schools and colleges will have a key part to play in grounding this work in the daily, lived dilemmas of running a school, college or trust.

The Ethics Forum will meet for the first time in June 2019 and we’d like to see you there. The Chartered College of Teaching is looking after this part of our work, so to get involved or for more information, please look online at or email

Strengthening foundations

We launched our work just before the DfE published its Early Career Framework. However, we’d like to work with the DfE and develop a ‘part two’ to the current Teachers’ Standards. At present, they just say that teachers should “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.” However, we believe they should go further than that and they should include some practical examples that could help us all.

So, building on the Pathfinder Programme and the Ethics Forum, we want to promote ethical debate throughout the profession to strengthen its foundations. We want to reassure teachers and leaders in their dilemmas by the existence of the framework and provide them with resources through the Pathfinder and Forum.

We hope this might help teachers think about taking on senior roles, knowing that instant certainty is less important than the ability to tackle difficulty with wisdom and act correctly. This might keep them in the profession longer and encourage them to challenge shortcuts and poor practice, so they don’t become permanently embedded in our system. It may reintroduce a language of ethical vocation rather than just metrics to the choice of teaching as a career, a huge motivator for so many.

We want the language of the framework to permeate the structure of teaching and leadership so that due, serious and sustained consideration for these values and virtues become a professional expectation and a shared language.

Think again about that hard decision in the long night and the competing demands on your decision-making. Wouldn’t it be reassuring to call upon some guidance knowing that these were shared by your peers? Wouldn’t it be useful to see the way others had dealt with the same kind of problem? Wouldn’t it help you decide calmly and without fear or regret? Wouldn’t that save time? Then please join us.

Schools and colleges are where society looks after its young until they are ready to take on the mantle of adult citizenship. We have to do what’s expected of us professionally, but we also have to set a good example to those young people. We work our socks off to help them learn and achieve but there’s more to it than that. Accountability isn’t enough: we have to do good.

Carolyn Roberts
Former ASCL Honorary Secretary, Ethical Leadership Commission Chair and Headteacher of Thomas Tallis School in Greenwich

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