ASCL Ethical Leadership Commission: Objectivity and justice

I’m sitting on my perch by the door at Year 11’s parents’ evening. These young people are recovering from their mock exams and I’m on hand to seize relevant participants and absorb frustrations. Parents’ evenings are the fulcrum of the leadership dilemma, the crossroads of education. To the teacher, the child is loved and valued, one among many, similar to hundreds of others equally valued over the years. To the parent, the child is loved to distraction, the very centre of the known universe. All in the service of the system must be focused on the beloved. So how do we do the best for everyone while we do the best for the individual?

It works pretty well most of the time. Parents love their children and most teachers regard them with something akin to unconditional positive regard. We can usually agree on the right support for the little one in question even if he’s 6 foot 6.

That parents trust us to do this is partly because we are trustworthy and partly because we’re effective and experienced. Mostly, however, it’s because we’re not parents, so we treat everyone alike.  This irony is at the very heart of in loco parentis.  We want everything the good parent wants for a child, but we want it for everyone who comes through the door.  And rather than having our emotions inflamed or clouded by the intensity of the mother-father-child relationship, we want what’s best for them calmly, systematically, fairly, in the cool hour of thought. 

The ELC has adopted the Principle for Public Life of Objectivity: 

School and college leaders must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

And I’m pairing it here with our desirable virtue of justice:leaders should be fair, and work for the good of all children. 

Leaders should work fairly, for the good of children from all backgrounds. They should seek to enable all young people to lead useful, happy and fulfilling lives. Governors should serve the just needs of all children meticulously.

I wrote in the trust blog about our role ‘holding trust’ for children and young people, being their advocates. If we add justice to this, there is an added dimension, stretching way outside our home institutions. 

Ethical educators should work so that all young people have the benefit of a reliably, equally good system, where all needs are met with quality provision, where no child is left behind.  In that way we fulfil our role as parents on behalf-of-the-state, the backbone of our role.  Remember, we not only have to be good and virtuous public and community servants and leaders, but our every action sets an example to the young and lays the foundations for a better civil future. 

So, the best of parents never favours one child over another, providing for their diverse needs with equal care, effort and love. Is that how our system works? Does our multiple-provider high-accountability system enable objectivity and justice or does it make ethical decision-making harder? If we have an absolute responsibility as leaders to work for the good of all children, how do our structures help?  

How can we, for example, apply objectivity and justice to the zero-sum P8 measure? To competing for children through advertising? To the generation of surplus school places in areas where there is no need?  To off-rolling? 

There are no easy answers to any of our questions, but our duty is clear: to serve all the children, all the time, and to do it fairly and objectively.  That involves shared norms and purposes.  Will ours help? 

Do you think our proposed principles focus on the right things?  

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 behaving ethically? 

How might we support school leaders to be good ethical leaders? 

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: 08/03/2018 16:08:22