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Ethical Leadership by Rob Carpenter

Ethical Leadership by Rob Carpenter

The principle of ethical leadership is something which has long been assumed in education, bestowed upon the teaching profession unconditionally.  Teachers are uniquely charged with not only affecting the people who enter our schools but are also expected to model and uphold the values reflected more broadly in public life.  This is reinforced by evidence from the Generation Z Report which cites, despite times of geo-political uncertainty, anxiety and change, that trust in teachers remains high, even increasing in some places.  In a climate of increasing poverty, the polarisation of communities and a political rhetoric which distorts any notion of British values to the extreme, faith in teachers to enable students to navigate turbulent times is unaffected. 

The fundamental belief in education as a force for good is mirrored by another, more recent phenomenon.  School leaders are developing a heightened consciousness of our need to model the behaviours of ethical leadership, trust-based accountability and relational leadership, eroded by pernicious education policies.  Slowly, we are waking up to the fact that the most enduring education systems place students at the centre, cherish relational learning and connect education with making sense of a complex world.  They have higher levels of equity (measured through both provision and outcomes), lower gaps in achievement between student groups, and view success in relation to trust-based rather than test-based accountability.  In other words, our best schools ask what school can do for our students rather than what can students do for the school, especially its exam results.

Education reform in England has concentrated on assessment, accountability and increasing ‘rigour’ across our schools.  This has created a convenient script locating the ‘problem’ with teachers’ expectations and low standards rather than social and economic inequality. Meanwhile, politicians continue to dodge school funding concerns, fail to address depleted social care in communities and ignore the relationship between education outcomes and poverty.  This is what Philip Alston, the United Nations poverty envoy, commenting on child poverty described as “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”. 

Initiatives including No Child Left Behind and the Australian drive to increase PISA test rankings to the top five by 2025 repeat a predictable script: 

  • Tighter accountability
  • More frequent testing
  • Raising expectations for standards
  • Instructional change

And it hasn’t worked.  An obsession with standards creates an environment where unethical practices become normalised, we view students as objects and we over-emphasise the importance of measurement as our proxy for success.  In other words, we can teach students to read nonsense words in phonics, because that is what we test, but students hate reading. 

The evidence base is real too.  In 2018 a reported 19,000 students who finished Year 10 in one school did not complete Year 11 at the same school.  Over 300 schools have been highlighted for alleged ‘off-rolling,’ leading to Ofsted issuing guidance on this unethical practice to all schools.  Around a third of these students were deemed to have SEND needs and students with English as an additional language, looked after children, pupil premium or other forms of disadvantage featured disproportionality highly too.  2018 also saw the highest proportion of primary schools’ key stage two test results annulled for misappropriation of tests and the highest proportion of primary schools requesting timetable alterations to test arrangements. No wonder Yong Zhao, writing in What Works May Hurt, comments that: “High stakes testing corrupts education, turning it into test preparation.  I knew that a test-driven education does not result in citizens who can defend a democracy in the modern economy.”


What should we do differently? 

Firstly, we need to re-calibrate the purpose of education so that schools are seen as more than exam factories.  The function of education has a role to ensure students find their place in the world, contribute more effectively and connect with people through deeper levels of collaboration.  As the 2017 Global Insights Report highlights: “We need to champion a new kind of learning; one which values teamwork, creativity and the diversity of opinion held within our classrooms.  We need to educate our children to think more critically, more ethically and become more geopolitically aware.”

It is a world-centred view of education which challenges the perception that students are merely objects, a percentage figure.  It challenges the notion that student success approximates to measurement of outcomes.  Tod Rose (The End of Average) argues that: “In school you are graded and ranked by comparing your performance to the average student.  To get admitted to college, your grades and test scores are compared to the average applicant.  Rather than comparing people to a misguided ideal, they could have seen them – and valued them – for what they are: individuals.”

We should also look more closely at the way in which we evaluate the work of teachers.  The deepest impact of our work cannot simply be expressed in numerical value, or from the outcome of a test score.  These things matter but should not be used to define the work of teachers per se.  The real worth of teachers’ work can often be found in the abstract, fluid kinds of exchanges when we adopt learning-centred leadership behaviours.  They not only model ethical professional learning but also reinforce to students that they are more than a grade. 

A focus on teacher behaviours challenges the notion of high performance in teams.  This matters even more because we attach such a high status to anything which can be measured (e.g. pupil achievement) which can stop us from focusing on what is harder to measure but matters just as much.  Using data alone to evaluate performance becomes problematic if we manipulate it in order to tell the version of the story we want people to hear.  From both appraisee and appraiser perspectives, this encourages us to view pupils as objects to be counted, rather than little people who live complex lives.

Finally, at the risk of committing heresy, if we can separate teaching from learning, we have the potential to create more dynamic classrooms where deeper levels of thinking take place and the role of teacher and learner enable a more fluid, expansive and exciting set of experiences.  The relationship between teaching and learning does not have to be a transactional one.  In other words, because you ‘teach’ something, it doesn't mean that it becomes ‘learnt’.  This is a problematic concept because everything we have been taught to do as leaders involves evaluating the work of teachers through a ‘teachingandlearning’ lens, comparing it with intended impact on learning, including:

  • How teachers plan, facilitate and deliver intended learning (without really understanding the complexity of concepts such as agency, motivation and internalisation of learning)
  • Measuring outcomes of learning (test scores, progress review meetings, book looks)
  • How teachers exercise control of a classroom by regulating the expectations for learning and the behaviours of pupils in lessons (regulating talk time, facilitating discussion and behaviour management processes)

This shift would enable us to celebrate and value the specific behaviours teachers exhibit and constructively critique whether these have any impact at all on the type of learning we believe is possible.  For example:

  • Relationships - making kids feel good about coming to school
  • How teaching inter-related concepts binds ‘big picture’ learning together
  • How teachers model learning dispositions as well as teach through explicit instruction
  • The balance of teacher versus pupil talk in lessons
  • The relational behaviours teachers foster between themselves and students as well as between students
1 CategoryLeadership Learning
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