A culture of ethical leadership: Five approaches

Written by: Jim Mepham | Published:
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As we emerge from the pandemic, ethical leadership has never been more important. But what does it look like? Primary school head Jim Mepham looks at five main approaches and the principles of ethical decision-making

Ethical leadership in schools is a hot topic.

There have been a number of articles, blogs and webinars published on this topic of late, not least Matt Bromley’s piece in this very organ on ethical leadership during Covid.

My own experience of 13 years of primary headship is that leadership is, overwhelmingly, about making decisions with an ethical dimension. Indeed, I wrote in 2020 about how Stoic philosophy can help us to place values and patience at the heart of our leadership (Mepham, 2020).

The most complex decisions for headteachers are often dilemmas for which there is no clear rule book to follow.

What is as an ethical decision?

An ethical decision refers to standards of right and wrong, how we should act, obligations, duties and rights. It will concern values like fairness, respect and autonomy.

When we make the decision to allocate teachers to classes each year, this is an ethical issue. We need to balance the right of a teacher to teach a different year group, with the fact that another teacher may be the best teacher for this class. We are balancing rights with outcomes, fairness and respect for staff.

It might be important for staff to develop wider experience by teaching in a different key stage. Or that a challenging class needs a highly experienced teacher. What if a teacher has taught the same year group for three years in a row? These remain questions of value.

Most headteachers will be familiar with the experience of having to meet ever-increasing pupil need within the confines of an ever-dwindling budget. Do we allocate money and staffing to the child who needs one-to-one support or to the recently arrived pupil without English? What about the year 6 pupils who need extra support to attain the expected standard in SATs?

Do we give an incremental pay rise in recognition of excellent teacher performance? Should we increase resources to support children at risk of exclusion or exclude those whose disruptive behaviour impinges on staff wellbeing and the learning of the majority of children? How do we balance the rights of pupils with those of parents?

Do we respect the right of some parents to prevent their children from visiting a mosque or a church on religious grounds, or do we have a duty to take a stand on grounds of the importance of cultural understanding?

Many issues that relate to recruitment and staffing, safeguarding, exclusions, curriculum, and community cohesion will have an ethical dimension because they will require you to act in line with principles, rather than just rely on gut instinct or general feelings.

Five main approaches

Contemporary ethics tends to use five main approaches to help us make moral decisions:

  • An outcomes approach: Which option produces the best outcomes or the least harmful ones?
  • A rights approach: Which option best respects the rights of all?
  • A common good approach: Which option best serves the community as a whole?
  • A justice approach: Which option treats people equally?
  • A virtue approach: Which option leads me to be the person I want to be?

To return to the first example of allocating staff to classes, if we adopted the first approach, we would make a decision based on the overall outcomes. Thus, the most “effective” teacher (in terms of teaching, experience, or meeting pupils’ needs) would be allocated to teach a particular class.

In terms of approaches two to four, we might consider the rights of a teacher who needs to gain experience in another group as part of their professional development. We might consider, out of fairness, the needs of this class to be more conducive to an NQT at the beginning of their career or to an established teacher with seniority.

The virtue approach encourages us to look at good character, how we live up to our values, promote an ethical climate through modelling behaviour and expectations.

For Matt Bromley in his Headteacher Update article already cited, “ethical leadership is driven by respect for values and an unfaltering belief in the dignity and rights of others”.

He identifies five principles of ethical leadership in the era of Covid – namely honesty, justice, respect, community, and integrity.

Ultimately, even though the above approaches might help guide our thinking, they may not provide the answers to all decisions. We will inevitably face ethical dilemmas – situations where different moral requirements clash and we are not clear what to do.

Tackling an ethical dilemma

Anthony Weston, in his book A Practical Companion to Ethics (1997), talks about the importance of creative problem-solving in ethics and the need for inventiveness and expanding options.

When faced with an ethical dilemma, it may be necessary to go beyond the standard approaches and use the following techniques:

  • Share these dilemmas with others (senior leaders or headteacher colleagues).
  • Use “cloud-bursting” – sharing, generating new ideas.
  • Examine options and priorities.
  • Reframe problems – is there a way of preventing this problem from arising?
  • Regard the obstacle as the way – identifying new opportunities from problems.

Wellbeing vs outcomes

One of the dilemmas which is often prominent is that between pupil wellbeing and learning outcomes – a clash that has come to the fore during the pandemic. On the one hand, there is a nationwide preoccupation with “lost” school time and the urgent need to reduce gaps in learning, alongside the competing concern for staff and pupil wellbeing.

One Australian primary school teacher said: “It is the first time in my career where pupil learning became a lower priority and wellbeing took over – if we could keep them chugging along, that was good enough.” (Forster, 2020).

If we look at this issue more creatively, we can see that it may not be a dilemma at all. It is not an either/or situation but, rather, one in which learning needs and curriculum are to be tailored and adapted to meet the needs of the school community.

Within this community there are staff and parents and governors, authorities and external stakeholders who need to share and discuss needs, options and priorities.

By sharing and discussing ideas with different sections of the community we can get a deeper understanding of the needs of pupils, for instance. The curriculum can be adapted to address new contextual needs.

Emerging from the pandemic has typically meant placing the following on top of the school agenda: exercise, talk, play, interaction, recapturing a sense of identity, and community (NAHT, 2021). We simply have to adapt what we do.

A collegial approach

To return to the question of parents stopping their child from attending school trips to places of worship. This may not be a simple dilemma of parental rights to withdraw versus the children’s right to learn about other cultures.

Instead of an either/or situation, closer consideration may reveal that we need to be more imaginative about how we develop trust between different cultural groups and what the school community can do to foster this. Such things as hosting a fete, holding a music event, or choosing a topic on foods from around the world may be more effective strategies for improving community cohesion.

Does our school curriculum and environment reflect our school community? Decisions can only be made after reflective questions have been asked. Part of being an ethical leader is this habit of self -reflection and school evaluation. This process takes time to do this and requires a collegial approach.

Ethical leadership should be about fostering ethical practice in schools. How far do our school values underpin our curriculum, our staff conduct, our policies and our teaching? Do the children get the opportunity to engage in ethical practice – character education, restorative justice, debate and discussion, the study of rights and responsibilities? How far do our school stories and assemblies present ethical dilemmas and choices for children to consider?

Promoting an ethical culture in school is not an easy task. It takes time and commitment. Not everyone will agree on what is fair, rights and responsibilities may clash, and values can be contested but what we can do is to map-out what kind of decisions are ethical and the considerations we need think about.

Staff modelling ethical conduct

One way of beginning this process is to start with how our staff model ethical conduct for children. How well are school values, behaviours, and traits modelled?

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham is at the forefront of promoting moral education in schools. Its various research indicates that many schools are promoting this kind of ethical culture, but that the focus on moral character is needed in CPD throughout a teacher’s career to ensure that momentum is maintained.

It is by following this recommendation, I believe, that we can start to map out and develop our ethical school culture.

One attempt at providing a list of ethical characteristics of people holding public office is the seven principles of public life created by Lord Nolan in 1995. They comprise selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership (HM Gov, 1995).

These characteristics do not seem contentious. All schools would state a commitment to such principles (on their websites; in their documentation) – but do they enact them?

In England, the Association of School and College Leaders led the Ethical Leadership Commission, which published its Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education in 2019, adding seven personal characteristics or virtues to complement the Nolan principles – trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage, and optimism (ASCL, 2019).

The National Governance Association (NGA), which was also involved in the Ethical Leadership Commission, has subsequently published Paving the way for ethical leadership (Sharma, 2021) providing an ethical audit for schools to use and examples of ethical dilemmas for leaders to consider.

Such dilemmas, I believe, are useful scenarios to consider, both for current headteachers grappling with every day but complex issues, but also for new headteachers at the start of their career.


To develop a culture of ethical leadership, we need to provide training and opportunities for discussion, we need to identify the range of ethical decisions that leaders are faced with and consider how they might best be resolved. We want ethical leaders to lead ethical schools in which core values such as justice, autonomy and courage permeate all aspects of school culture.

  • Jim Mepham has been the headteacher of Shield Road Primary School for 13 years and has worked in education for more than 30 years. He has a keen interest in ethical leadership.

Further information & references

  • ASCL: Navigating the educational moral maze, January 2019: www.ascl.org.uk/EthicalLeadership
  • Bromley: Covid-19: Why we need ethical leadership more than ever – and what it looks like, Headteacher Update, November 2020: https://bit.ly/3psmLO9
  • Forster: Is learning more important than well-being? Teachers told us how COVID highlighted ethical dilemmas at school, School News Australia, November 2020: https://bit.ly/3ImwOfI
  • HM Government: The seven principles of public life, Committee on Standards in Public Life, May 1995: https://bit.ly/3q9PadS
  • Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues: www.jubileecentre.ac.uk
  • Mepham: What school leaders can learn from Stoic philosophy, Headteacher Update, November 2020: https://bit.ly/3MZHtk0
  • NAHT: Education recovery: A blueprint for a stronger and fairer system for all, May 2021: https://bit.ly/3tif7tD
  • Sharma: Paving the way for ethical leadership in education, NGA, January 2021: https://bit.ly/3icItmT
  • Weston: A Practical Companion to Ethics, OUP, 1997.

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