Ethical Leadership: I Like It. What Is It?

I am a huge fan of the artist Anthony Burrill and have just treated myself to this new print to hang in my office. It makes me smile and for me it captures the spirit of the brilliant trust team I have the privilege of working with. It can be read two ways though; as an articulation of an adventurous and open-minded spirit (which is what my team certainly has in abundance!) or as a naïve acceptance of anything that looks shiny, new and exciting. The former has enormous potential for good; the latter is one of the curses of English education.

One of the shiniest and most exciting new things in education is ethical leadership. ASCL, the NGA and many others have rightly identified the promotion of an ethical framework for school leadership as one of the most pressing and significant issues for the system. I have spoken about it at a number of events recently and am always greeted with smiles, nods and general agreement that this is a good thing.

We like it. What is it?

And herein lies the difficulty. I have never met anyone who describes themselves as an unethical school leader and yet we all recognise unethical behaviour. Whenever I stand in front of Year 7 students in a hall on the first day in September, I say that they may not know all the school rules yet but they all know the difference between good behaviour and bad behaviour. Similarly, in school leadership, we all know that some things are wrong no matter what.

For example, it must always be wrong to encourage a family to “educate” their child at home rather than recording an exclusion, it must always be wrong to register a student somewhere else to improve a league table position, it must always be wrong to enter an entire cohort of students for a meaningless qualification to inflate the open bucket. And while not everything is black and white, in a world of comparable outcomes, it is difficult to defend leadership behaviour that undermines other school leaders who are desperately trying to do the right thing.

For my trust, ethical leadership is about doing what we know is right; trusting our colleagues professionally; being kind and brave; behaving in ways that specifically reduce fear and anxiety in our schools and reminding ourselves always that we are here to serve others. We have re-written our leadership standards around an ethical framework and clearly articulate the behaviours leaders must show. We recruit around these standards and leadership development is about supporting leaders to get even better. This isn’t some soft and woolly nice to have; it is the most important facet of creating schools that great teachers want to work in. After all, the worst kept secret in English education is that teachers don’t want to stick around in a toxic culture where fear has replaced trust.

One of our leadership competencies: Trust

The critical importance of ethical leadership though, goes way beyond the behaviour and decision making of individual school leaders and leadership teams. It has to underpin the entirety of a school or trust’s operations; what it seeks to achieve; how it measures itself and, in the case of a trust, how it grows. Because although little in education is ever truly black and white, two distinct approaches have emerged. In one approach the focus is on results above performance; rapid growth; systems that ensure compliance and a culture of high anxiety and low trust, high accountability but low autonomy. It is one of the great shames of recent years that this model has been courted, lauded, held up to be copied and the myth that any school can be “transformed” in two terms has perpetuated. Meanwhile, leaders and teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers.

Trust development framework: Our trustees are clear they want our schools to operate in the green box

There is another way. There are lots of great leaders in academies, maintained schools and trusts who lead in a different way. The focus is on performance before results; growth is deliberate and not for its own sake; systems are about improvement not compliance; the culture is of low anxiety and high trust; accountability is just as high but here autonomy is too. Leaders in these schools are driven by a strong sense of moral purpose and have the wisdom to understand the central importance of vibrant work cultures in retaining teachers in the profession. They also have the courage to lead in this way and to care about young people and staff in other leaders’ schools, despite the fact that the accountability system – particularly the comparable nature of league tables – makes it excruciatingly difficult at times.

I like it. It is ethical system leadership. Shall we start talking about that?

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