One of the most enduring images of recent decades has been that of the superhead: the heroic, league-table topping, entrepreneurial lone-ranger figure, once compared by the former chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, to a Clint Eastwood figure“fighting for righteousness”.
But might the model of the next few decades be different – a less combative leader, driven as much by a vision of a good society as by competitive advantage?
That is the profound wish of Carolyn Roberts, a longstanding headteacher and one of the architects of the Ethical Leadership Commission. The influential body, founded by headteachers, has been working for two years to come up with a common set of values to help school leaders navigate what they describe as an education “moral maze”, in which behaviour can be driven by a preoccupation with results.
But why do we need to recalibrate school leadership to be more ethical? In many ways this is a troubling question to be asking on a damp February morning in the successful south London comprehensive Roberts has led for the past six years.
Does the fact that we need to reinvigorate the moral purpose of education suggest that something has gone wrong with school leadership? Is it now unethical?
Roberts, headteacher of Thomas Tallis school, a huge diverse comprehensive sandwiched between Blackheath and Kidbrooke in the London borough of Greenwich, chooses her words carefully. “We now have so many different types of schools and we need to be certain there is enough that binds us together.”
Holding schools to account is a reasonable thing to do, she says. “But the way we have gone about it – trying to measure the efficacy of schools by looking at their outputs [exam results] – has made leaders focus intently on that and led to a poor balancing of the other things that schools do.”
While Roberts is careful not to criticise fellow heads, the elephants in the room are hard to ignore: regular reports about some schools “off-rolling” – getting rid of challenging students; cheating in exams; “gaming” the curriculum by channelling students into easier subjects. And then there’s exorbitant headteacher pay, and even financial scams that verge on the criminal.
Roberts knows headteachers are under intense pressure to keep improving results. She admits that in the past – she was head of two schools in the north-east before moving to London – she has faced “personal dilemmas” over issues such as the use of GCSE-equivalent qualifications that were promoted intensively to boost some schools’ league table positions.
“It is really hard for people who are under pressure all the time,” she says. “Too many headteachers have found themselves compromised. The accountability measures say they have to achieve one thing and the local authority or academy trust says you have to do it quickly, therefore decision-making becomes harder and people take what they may view as shortcuts.
“It is perfectly reasonable to make sure that a child gets a good set of examination results. But we can’t get away from the fact that schools are communities that ought to model what we value about society. What we are hearing is that headteachers want a language they can use to support them in that long-term nuanced work.”
In an age where “robust” leadership and easily measured outcomes are highly valued, the commission could be accused of promoting a more “wishy-washy” definition of education.
Michael Gove, the former education secretary, whose reforms still shape the lives of many schools, pioneered the idea of a slimmed-down inspectionframework devoid of what he described as “peripherals” such as pupil wellbeing and community cohesion. His colleague Nick Gibb, who once described the idea of social and emotional learning as “ghastly”, remains as schools minister.
But the Ethical Leadership Commission has high-level support from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), which helped to set it up, the National Association of Head Teachers, the Church of England Education Office, the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference, the Chartered College of Teaching and the National Governors’ Association. At the publication of its final report last month, it received a warm welcome from the interim National Schools Commissioner, Dominic Herrington.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL and a former headteacher, is adamant that the current system is not unethical. “The vast majority of practice upholds the values articulated in this framework,” he says. “Our members felt it was time to identify and articulate the principles and values that are immutable in education leadership, and provide a supportive framework upon which school leaders can draw in making difficult decisions under great pressure.”
A hundred schools are now trialling the framework and an ethics forum will meet several times a year to consider the sort of dilemmas leaders face, in the context of the Nolan principles – seven principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – to which the commission has added the personal characteristics of trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage and optimism.
The chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, is a member of the commission and Roberts believes proposed changes to the Ofsted framework– away from focusing on results and towards a broader definition of “quality of education” – reinforce the idea that change is coming.
Far from being abstract, she argues, the commission’s “virtues and values” are intricately bound up in real-life dilemmas faced by heads, and marshalling them into a framework can give colleagues confidence and courage. “For example, it is about going down the road and looking a colleague in the eye and saying: ‘the way you do admissions or exclusions affects my school, and can we talk about this?’ That is quite a difficult thing to do, so courage is very important.
“It is about heads feeling they can be honest with parents if there is a disappointing set of GCSE results. It is about ensuring that children see adults treating each other in a just, wise and kind way, modelling the sort of behaviour we would want to see in society,” says Roberts.
She adds: “It is about supporting heads who want to take time to see both sides of the argument before making a reasoned judgment, or those who would prefer to support and be kind to a teacher who is under pressure in the hope of helping them through a difficult patch, rather than feeling that they are compromised because people expect them to be instant judges and zero-tolerant of failure.”
Even the current debate about mobile phone use in school has an ethical dimension, she says, and should be seen in the broader context of how society and adults use electronic devices.
Most urgently, though, she argues that the framework is needed because England is facing a chronic teacher recruitment and retention crisis and headteachers in their 50s are leaving the profession in record numbers, partly because of competitive pressures and leadership styles that were valued in the past. Wilshaw notoriously suggested that heads would know they were doing their job properly if “staff morale was at an all-time low”.
“This had led to intolerable workload issues and it has made it harder for teachers to see themselves doing the job for 40 years,” says Roberts.
“We are losing experience and wisdom from the system. But every interaction in school ought to build up a stable and happy community in which all children are valued and adults want to work. We need a clear idea of what schools are for and we need to take seriously our responsibility to the sorts of citizens we want for the future.”