ASCL Ethical Leadership Commission: Honesty and trust


In our Framework for Ethical Leadership we propose an educational reworking of the seven principles of public life and six virtues. Honesty is one of the principles, trust is one of our virtues and we express them this way: 

Honesty: School and college leaders should be truthful.

Trust: Leaders should be honest and make good judgements.  They should be trustworthy and reliable, holding trust on behalf of children.  Governors should be beyond reproach, reinforcing the trust they share with and have in leaders through scrutiny and support.

I’ve been brokering a fresh start for a student we can’t sustain any more.  The conversations with everyone are measured and careful:  How can we avoid permanent exclusion?  What does she need to put the past behind her?  What does another school need to know? What can the local authority offer? 

All the meetings have relied on trust: that I’ve made the right decision, that colleagues are telling the truth, that she wants to try again, that the system won’t abandon her. Where the process has hit stony ground, it’s to do with honesty and trust.  Am I mad, are they lying, does she mean it, can they deliver?  

This was one of the more difficult values to distil and the definition still not entirely satisfactory.  Are we talking about trustworthiness, holding something in trust, or honesty? 

Fulfilling responsibilities

Telling the truth reliably and consistently is a pretty basic human need we have of one another.  Perhaps we can say that the foundation of trustworthiness is honesty? That an educational leader’s word is her bond, that a leader who lies would be so rare that his discovery would be remarkable, extraordinary. That a leader who lied would be unemployable.

Is being a truthful leader all it takes to be a trustworthy leader?  Perhaps not; it’s necessary but not sufficient. Honesty and truthfulness need to be combined with consistency and reliability to generate trustworthiness, being reliably deserving of trust. 

There’s a bit more to it than that. An honest and truthful leader involves wisdom and good judgement, so a leader with a sound track record is worthy of trust. Such a person would be trustworthy because they are capable, wise, kind, courageous, fair and not full of themselves, motivated by service, rather than greed or fame.  This covers the first responsibility of ethical educational leaders: to fulfil responsibilities correctly. 

Holding trust

The second part of trust is relevant to the second part of our lives: to model as well as teach ‘right’ conduct to the young.  That definition, to which we allude in the framework definition, is of ‘holding’ trust.  This is still awkward phrasing and I’d be glad of suggestions for improvement.  What we’re trying to express is our responsibility to be the people whom children and young people can always trust to act for them.  

Perhaps it would be clearer to say: 

Education leaders, including governors, are advocates for children and young people and will always serve their best interests.  They hold trust in society on behalf of young people. They can be reliably expected to put the interests of young people first, and to view all other interests through the lens of the effect they have on young people. 

It’s a bit like the 2008 Brown Principles in the Public Sector Equality Duty.  We could rephrase them thus in the kind of language we already use:

We are aware of the best interests of children and young people in all decision-making.

We consider the best interests of children and young people at the time that decisions are made.

We aim to carry out rigorous analysis of a decision’s impact on the best interests of children and young people.

Headteachers and governors understand that while other colleagues may carry out much of the work, we may not delegate this duty. 

We exercise this duty continually, and pay regard to it in all our work.

We will aim to keep dated records to demonstrate that the best interests of children and young people have been considered.

Does that help? Children don’t have ‘protected characteristics’, but they shouldn’t need them because they have us.  We are honest and trustworthy, not just with them but for them.  We are trustworthy because we are honest, and we do the job right.  

So, we’re asking these questions: 

Is trust a good virtue to focus on?  

Do you think school leadership in the UK lives up to this vision?  

What are the key issues that school leaders face?  

Are there barriers to school leaders being honest and trustworthy? 

How might we support school leaders to be honest and trustworthy? 

Please email with your thoughts.

You can also read Carolyn’s series of blogs on ethical leadership in education, and the origins of the ASCL Ethical Leadership Commission.

ASCL Past President Peter Kent has also written Doing the right thing which looks at ethical leadership in education from an international perspective.
Posted: 01/03/2018 14:23:58