Are you an ethical leader?

This week’s Talking Head comes from Peter Eyre, Executive Head Teacher at Saltburn Learning Campus, Cleveland. 

The understanding of moral and ethical decision making is one of the simplest, and most fundamental learning experiences for any child. We begin this earnestly from birth based around the ideas of what is considered to be right and wrong. This framework allows us all to exist in a well ordered and sophisticated society. However, ethical decision making is far from simple in reality and as such, agreement on what is considered a “good” decision is often open for significant debate.

The trolley dilemma is a standard example of this to unpick an individual’s thoughts behind a moral debate. A runaway train trolley is heading down a track towards five unaware workers who will surely die if it crashes in to them. The track has a crossroads and you hold the lever to divert the trolley. On the other track is a lone worker. Do you pull the lever; saving the five, but killing the one? This conundrum is further explored by removing the lever and the lone worker but suggesting you could push a person onto the tracks – stopping the trolley but in effect murdering the bystander. Or perhaps you could sacrifice yourself? This is a classic debate but ultimately is very useful as it does mirror the complexities of real life. No one decision is independent. Teaching a child that it is wrong to steal from others is undoubtedly a clear ethical lesson and many children may experiment with boundaries of what is right and wrong as they grow. However, in society we may often ask what are the drivers for older children and adults to steal? What is their motive?

Ofsted and the DfE’s recent focus on permanent exclusions in schools is a topical and controversial entry point to ethical dilemmas that leaders in education face every day. A decision to exclude a student permanently should only be taken: in response to a serious breach or persistent breaches of the school’s behaviour policy; AND where allowing the pupil to remain in school would seriously harm the education or welfare of the pupil or others in the school. The “and” in this guidance from the DfE is critical. I have never not heard any Head Teacher being very articulate and clear about the evidence and reasoning behind why a permanent exclusion has been made – each fully convinced that the mirrored example of the trolley experiment is clear. In their case; the permanently excluded student who has their right to mainstream education taken away from them was to protect the maintenance of a good education for the rest of the students. Ofsted will do well to ask this question and gather the evidence when they visit around what was the negative impact of this student on the whole school? Similarly they should ask, what was the potential risk to the whole school by not permanently excluding the student? I have been part of many conversations where it is clear that a leader feels they have clear justification and have been an ethical leader, and then others will quickly question and make an assessment on their decision, their behaviour policy and their reasoning. It would seem it is often easiest to pass judgement on others ethical leadership while maintaining security that your decisions are sound.

Amanda Spielman during her key note speech at the Schools North East Summit ( ) noted that Ofsted’s revised focus on curriculum “will let us reward schools for doing the right thing by their pupils.”  She also noted that leaders “who are bold and ambitious and run their schools with integrity will be rewarded as a result.” This is reassuring and most school leaders are welcoming of Ofsted’s recent conversation on the inspectorates role. However, they have to accept that, along with the DfE they have driven the mixed messages for schools for a significant period of time. If you look at any of the outstanding research lead work completed by FFt Education Datalab (and I heartily recommend you do ) around Ofsted judgements related to Progress 8 and the progress measures at KS2 you cannot fail to see the strong correlation between these measures and Ofsted judgements. These single, often statistically flawed values show that those with the lowest progress are far more likely to be rated Inadequate despite the fact that other research would indicate that those progress measures are not just statistically flawed, but also are lacking in real contextual understanding. Professor Stephen Gorard’s work out of Durham University consistently evidences this. Yet, leaders of those school’s with the highest proportion of disadvantaged students, and the highest proportion of students with SEND face being labelled by the DfE as “Significantly below average” or “Below average” based on a single value. The media then frenzy on this annually asking parents if “your child goes to one of the worst school’s in Britain?” In addition, Ofsted patterns indicate you will be more likely to get a lower Ofsted rating, driving falling roll, parental dissatisfaction and attack, and driving higher recruitment and retention issues for your school further compounding the issues. The new direction of travel from Ofsted is entirely right and I hope that it bears out during inspections but the DfE and the media also have a role to play. If we want our leaders to be ethically driven then perhaps the modelling coming from those holding us to account and judging us should be ethically driven too and consider the individual scenario’s, barriers and contexts of schools, areas and regions first and support those leaders.

On results day this year when myself and a colleague had been debating our secondary outcomes and trying to establish if we were pleased with them she noted that her husband had asked “What would make you happy?”. It gave me pause for thought and we discussed this. I said that right now I would say a progress 8 score of 0 or above for every student in the school. But I went on to say that if you’d asked me 5-10 years ago I would have said “that a student got whatever they needed to make their next step in life and was happy with”. It really made me think about how hard it is to hold onto the true core purpose of education when leaders are so critically and quickly judged on a single measure that is not important for a moment to the learners themselves. If Ofsted and the DfE want true ethical leadership to triumph in our fractured educational landscape then they need to champion those leaders who, despite all their barriers, keep focussing on a learners experience rather than their outcomes alone.

If you would like to share your views on this, please email 

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