At this year's Annual Conference, ASCL launched a year-long project on Ethical Leadership in Education - you can read more about the background to this in Carolyn Roberts' article Shared Values in issue 96 of Leader magazine.
This is the seventh in a series of eight blog posts, where Carolyn adds further context to the subject and poses questions relating to this proposed new commission.
What values may be assumed in an evolutionary system?
Or: Whose Ethics?
I've just finished a session on ethical leadership at the Inspiring Leadership conference. The room was friendly and we had an interesting discussion which prevented me from talking for an hour without pausing for breath. One of the questions posed was: whose ethics? That is, if we get to a stage where school leaders actually thrash out a code, or set up an ethics committee or a standing conference, how would we decide on the values? Doesn't everyone have different values?
I could go on a bit about this so perhaps I should make my position clear: moral relativism gives me the heebie-jeebies because I'm pretty sure that there are some universal goods that people should try to live by. For example, killing, stealing, cruelty and lying are wrong.
That’s not to say there may not be exceptional circumstances in which a wrong action may be the only possible action, but that doesn't stop it being wrong (I'm a bit of categorical imperative kinda girl). If everyone acted similarly the world would be a better place, do as you would be done by, love your neighbour as yourself. Don’t make it up as you go along.
This might as well have been tattooed on us when I was an undergraduate. My tutor, a notable ethicist in the Anglican tradition, shelved books of which he disapproved with the spine turned inwards lest they corrupt the young. One of these was Fletcher's Situation Ethics. Fletcher being part of a strand - religious and atheist - which believed that actions were made ethical by their effect in context, no absolute rights and wrongs.
Don't be afraid
We are all heirs of this debate and one of my throwaway remarks this morning was that we should commit ourselves, as community leaders and public intellectuals, to stop using 'appropriate' and ' inappropriate' when we talk about behaviours, and instead talk about right or wrong, good or bad (which can terrify people who feel they might seem judgemental).
UK school leaders are a hundred thousand or so people on a small damp island at a particular point in history. We're intelligent, educated and entrusted with the care of the young. We're not dominated by any particular ideology and the national religion we have is of a particularly mild sort. We place a high premium on community cohesion and tolerance.
I believe we can entrust ourselves to be clear about a few principles of right and wrong, good and bad. We can start with the particular (“it's wrong to steal the school budget and spend it on shoes”, “it's wrong to tell kids the answers in exams”), and work outwards. That's not to say - as Steve Munby memorably said this morning - that we might not look old-fashioned in 50 years’ time. Notwithstanding, it's still worth doing,
We should trust ourselves to articulate what we believe so that our young people know how they should live too. We should affirm publicly some liberal, inclusive, timeless values that make the world a better place for children to grow up in, and express them clearly. And we shouldn't be afraid.
It’s Election Day as I write and whoever gets the big chair at Sanctuary Buildings will have some ideas about what we are for and what we should do. Setting out our lines in the sand might even enable us, politely, to resist that which does harm to our children.
In 2018, ASCL would like to be able to propose a Code of Ethics for Education so that together, we’ll be able to talk to the public clearly about the ethics we want to pass on to our young people.
In order to achieve this, we need your help. If you would like to be involved in any way, or if you would like to share your views on this important issue, please email firstname.lastname@example.org