Carolyn Roberts outlines what an ethical leadership code might look like and why it is needed

The Association of School and College Leaders is launching a year-long project to develop a code of ethical leadership.

Between this year’s ASCL annual conference, which opens next Friday in Birmingham, and next year’s conference, we will invite experts from within and outside education to form a national commission and share their views to help us to navigate our way through the educational moral maze.

Doctors have the Hippocratic oath. Accountants have a code of ethics. Lawyers have a code, a professional ethics helpline and Ethel, the ethical guru who guides them though dilemmas they might face in practice.

We have the teacher and headteacher standards. The former says that teachers should “uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics”. The latter talks of “moral purpose”, “positive relationships and attitudes” and “leading by example”.

Shouldn’t the public know what our ethical standards are?

We would all agree with those sentiments, but what do they actually mean? How do we interpret them in practice? And shouldn’t the public know what these ethical standards are? Our aim is that the code of ethical leadership will provide a more detailed guide.

People who study ethics use several approaches to help professionals to agree what is right and wrong.

• First, rights. Human rights have a powerful tradition with a particular importance for vulnerable children and young people. How do we feel about the education of refugee children, in the UK and in the rest of the world? Do we have an ethical responsibility to do more? How do these children fare in our own schools and colleges?

• Second, duties. How do we balance always doing the right thing for an individual child or young person, with the rights of the rest of the pupils in our schools and colleges? There are times when we feel we must exclude an individual pupil to protect the safety of others. What ethical responsibilities do we have for the excluded child or young person?

• Third, virtues. What sort of people do we want to be and what sort of young people do we think should emerge from the statutory education system? The accountability system could skew our behaviours towards putting pressure on children and young people to perform. Therefore, how do we balance the fact that good exam results are a route to further and higher education with the wider aims of education, such as producing well-rounded individuals?

These are ethical dilemmas that teachers and leaders face every day. We talk about them with colleagues, with our governing bodies, sometimes with our parent bodies and communities. But there is no national framework that allows us to explore and test these dilemmas against a set of ethical principles.

Teachers and leaders have highly complex professional duties and the ethical decisions they make – to do the right thing, to achieve a good result – are of enormous significance to the development of children and society. Schools are also the subject of intense public debate. A headteacher or principal will be confronted with all sorts of views; everyone has been through school and so expands upon their own experience. Our ethics should provide clear and well-grounded principles about what is good and bad, right and wrong.

We need to be clear about what we are doing, why we do it, who we do it for, to whom we are accountable and how we do it. This time next year we hope to have formulated some answers to these questions.

If you would like to share your views on this important issue, please email us at codeofethics@ascl.org.uk and have your say. Carolyn Roberts is honorary secretary of the ASCL and headteacher of Thomas Tallis school in south London