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The Impact of Accountability on Responsibility

The past few months, including the start to this academic year, have emphasised the depth of social responsibility felt by schools.  This responsibility has been a driver for many school leaders’ actions during the pandemic, as well as for many years preceding it.  However, in 2017, the Association of School & College Leaders (ASCL) established an Ethical Leadership Commission “because of concerns expressed by ASCL members and others about the lack of guiding principles for ethical leadership in education”.  It adopted the Nolan Principles, adding a series of defined behaviours – personal characteristics or virtues – namely: trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage and optimism.

Moral purpose and ethical behaviour are at the core of a responsible education system.  The blog below is a summary of the first part of a presentation for the National College of Education Combined Masters/Level 7 programme that seeks to link the theoretical underpinning of the course with the practice, the applied day to day reality of school leaders’ lives.

The opening paragraph above relates to virtue ethics (what kind of person do I want to be?) and focuses on the authenticity of the relationship between the person and their actions as a leader.  As Kerr (2013) wrote in Legacy, words and statements that are “powerful in the abstract … can be flat and generic on the page.  The challenge is always to bring them to life, and into the lives of those who lead”.  Consequentialist ethics (is it good) and deontological ethics (is it right) combine to create a more holistic structure to guide your thinking and future actions. 

I’ve often found the four principles of medical ethics a useful way to frame potential challenges and creating appropriate solutions:

Non-maleficence  – the call to do no harm or inflict the least harm possible to reach a beneficial outcome

Beneficence – the call to do good or promote a course of action that is in the best interests of the person

Autonomy – assuming people have the right to make decisions about things that directly affect them; being informed is key

Justice – consideration of the impact of individual decisions or decisions about individuals on the wider community/society as a whole

Dr Matt Silver’s presentation on Corporate Social Responsibility (available to school leaders on the programme – see module 3 resources) proposes integrating fields, in which Ethics are applied, allows for synergy; a shared moral compass towards greater purpose.  The challenge is to combine who we want to be as leaders (our authentic self; demonstrating integrity); with the common good – the greatest good, for greatest number with a preferential option for the poor/oppressed (humane leadership) with what is right and just (consistent and appropriate application).

The issue of “closing the gap” for our most disadvantaged children and young people is central to the common good.  The Pupil Premium/FSM6 is a heterogeneous group with varying depths of disadvantage, varying lengths of time entitled to FSM and composed of different ethnicities.  Within it the stubborn underperformance of the long-term disadvantage – defined as being eligible for free school meals for 80% or more of their time in school – is pronounced.

An FFT Datalab study (Plaister, N. and Thomson, D., 2019) of the long-term disadvantaged, those who identify as white British, shows the lack of progress of this group of pupils is depressingly similar across the country, yet rarely is it a focus at a national level.  The impact of this underperformance plays into an accountability system in which the schools with the largest percentage of this sub-group are over-represented among the schools graded as inadequate and under-represented (if represented at all) among those graded as outstanding.  As a consequence, teachers from these schools are more likely to leave the school and the profession, leaving the schools facing the greatest challenge even less well placed to meet it.

The danger is that the accountability system not only fails to do good but it actually does harm.  At its worst school leaders exacerbate the problems through clandestine means, selectively off-rolling and on-rolling certain groups of pupils.

Another FFT Datalab study (Nye, P. and Thomson, D., 2018) shows a gap of 37,000 pupils who had spent at least some of their education at a mainstream secondary school but didn’t finish their secondary schooling in a mainstream school.  A group exists of circa 22,000 leave mainstream state schools at some point between Year 7 and Year 11 and are not recorded in state education again.  Some will have moved to independent schools, others will be receiving home-schooling, moved to one of the other home nations, emigrated, or, in a small number of sad cases, died.

However, within this group “there were approximately 6,200-7,700 pupils who do not have results for GCSE or equivalent qualifications, or do not have results that counted towards any establishment”.  The estimates are due to us having no national education database of all children/young people in England.  “We think” is because we’re not totally sure.  From a safeguarding perspective this is deeply worrying.  Compared to those who complete secondary education in a mainstream school, pupils in this “not completing” group are more likely to have been eligible for free schools meals, have special educational needs, and have had lower attainment at primary school.  This off-rolling doesn’t include those pupils who are “bumped” out of one school into another local school, with places, because they are deemed problematic.

In a town of seven secondary schools, the 2019 performance tables shows: one secondary school with the number of pupils on roll as 1168 having 56 pupils with EHCPs; the other six secondary schools with a combined number on roll of 4913 had 79 pupils, in total with EHCPs.  These numbers are invariably affected by parental choice.  The stories of some schools suggesting to parents, as they go around the school visit carousel, that they’re child with various needs would be better catered for at another school cannot be ignored.  Whilst not certain of the reasons, you see some odd things happening.  The first school will be required to find £336,000 from its budget, every year, to fund the first £6,000 of the EHCPs.  Too what extent is education systemically failing our most vulnerable children & young people?  Too what extent are we culpable?

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Combined Level 7/Master programme – the final induction is in November 2020 with the course starting in January 2021 or the Level 5 or Level 3 leadership programmes then more information and a contact form is here.  All programmes may be fully funded by the Apprenticeship Levy (held either by the Trust or the Local Authority in the case of maintained schools).



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