Leadership for Learning: Ethical Practice

The Further Education Trust for Leadership has agreed to fund my year along research project.

This is the proposal that was put to them.

The purpose of the ‘Leadership for Learning: Ethical Practice’ (LfL) project is to develop a practical understanding of the behaviours and approaches adopted by ethical leaders in Further Education. The project will develop case studies in Ethical Leadership Practice based on those who have successfully enacted their ethical values within the institutions they lead.

This proposed project, an international FE / HE collaboration led by the University of Hull, will explore approaches to leadership that embody both moral authority and practical utility.

While the primary purpose of the project is to explore and develop ethical leadership practice in the UK, the project recognizes that FE skills in the UK is part of a competitive global sector and as such LfL will work in partnership with UK and European FE skills partners. The Norwegian Centre for the Study of the Professions has an international reputation for research in the area of global education policy and its impact on leadership. As co-researchers and members of the advisory group they will both guide and contrast our understanding of ethics and leadership. They will also identify a suitable European FE case study.

LfL is interested in how FE managers retain ethical integrity – a frequently neglected area of research that goes beyond competence. The project team have developed a working hypothesis: those with the strongest commitment to ‘doing the best for learners’ are more likely to be those with the most sophisticated strategies for avoiding ethical compromise in the fulfilment of their managerial obligations.

We would like to make explicit the tensions experienced by FE managers charged with implementing policy reforms. In many instances policy reforms are based on the view that the only value offered by FE and skills is an economic one. This reductive notion leads to what has been referred to as ‘ethical fading’ in which the demands of policy compels leaders to develop organizational strategies which may lead to an uncomfortable compromise of ethical accountability and leaders’ own values.  For example, while the project team is intent on not identifying at this stage any specific set of ethical dilemmas (these will emerge during the research), an example of what the project might wish to explore is: the potential for tension between the obligation to report on the radicalization of Muslim students and the rights of non-radicalized Muslim students to engage in spiritual activity without suspicion.  The purpose of LfL is to elaborate upon leadership practice that articulates, enacts and embodies a consistent expansive ethical stance. An ethical stance which views the social and the economic purposes of education as complementary and important.

Specifically, LfL asks what practical strategies do FE leaders deploy to enact their ethical values within the institutions they lead while limiting reductive policy determined forces that appear to narrowly define the range of choices open to them.

In an age defined by precariousness, it is entirely possible to suggest that the nature and depth of austerity savings place the continued existence of FE and skills at risk. LfL recognizes that improving FE and skills outcomes requires an expansive and democratic focus beyond the classroom. Leadership which is efficient and effective has to be tempered with leadership that embodies ethical commitments; this means leadership that is empowering, visionary, consultative, respectful and inclusive.

Integral to the project is the desire to heighten the voice, profile and public understanding of FE, to enable practice to speak to and impact upon policy and to enable those with an interest in the sector to articulate a distinct stance in an on-going conversation between research, policy and practice.


2 thoughts on “Leadership for Learning: Ethical Practice

  1. Having seen some ethical and unethical leadership during my 25 years in FE, I have some very strong views on this and really believe that ethical leadership is effective leadership. Top leaders need to gather teams around them that help them check their moral compass on a regular basis. Value-based training is essential to this but the current pressure to conform to an Ofsted view of education makes this unlikely when funds are needed for other purposes.


    • I’m inclined to share this view that ethical leadership should not be seen as in opposition to effective leadership. Though, the imposition of OfSTED and the need to get things done, quickly can lead to highly unethical behaviour in the name of expediency. Value-based training – or just the space for leaders to explore, define and be reminded of their values would make a major difference. No one likes to consider themselves unethical. But when we get caught up in the busyness of institutional life and the pressure to implement policy – it’s not always easy to see beyond the need for organisational survival towards a longer and more grounded sense of who we are, and what we’re actually here for. And if you can – well how do you enact that in the face of powerful opposition?


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