The grandly titled ASCL Ethical Leadership Commission have published their final report which sets out a moral framework for school leadership ‘to support leaders in their decision-making and in calling out unethical behaviour’. This is a laudable piece of work. I am one of the voices, to which they refer, calling for a more ethical approach in education. I will be reading the report fully and welcome this focus.
However, it strikes me that the attempt to improve ethical behaviour might better be achieved in other ways. The stated intention is to promote more ethical behaviour by inviting leaders to sign up to the framework, embedding it in development programmes and creating forums for ethical debate, with the intention being that ‘the language of values and virtues to be part of everyday decision-making’. These actions suggest that the cause of unethical behaviour is that leaders aren’t aware of these values and virtues, don’t possess them in sufficient amounts and/or fail to consider ethical dimensions when making decisions.
Now, I know of leaders who display the above deficiencies on a regular basis, but they are few and far between. Most school leaders I have known are acutely aware of the ethical dilemmas they face and have a strong moral compass.
Decision making in education becomes corrupted not as a result of the moral deficiencies of school leaders, but as a result of systemic pressures which divert leaders from acting solely in the best interests of students. Immoral behaviour is a rational response to perverse incentives.
Such perverse incentives abound in the education system. It is structural deficiencies, mostly in relation to accountability measures, which have resulted in ‘gaming’ results, off-rolling, fraud and a range of other immoral practices. We should approach these problems as economists, not moral philosophers, if we want substantial change to occur.
None of this is to say that a clear ethical framework isn’t desirable, or that school leaders should not be held to these high standards. We need strong moral leadership in education more than ever, and headteachers need to do what is right. This can mean an irrational disregard for how the school is judged and even for one’s own job security and well-being.
But if we really want to make education a more moral endeavour, let’s start by addressing the system within which human agents make decisions. The easier we make it for leaders to act ethically, the more they will do so.