Look to the system – not schools – for ‘moral purpose’

8 May 2021, 5:00

The academies minister is right to say collaboration between schools is a matter of morality – but she’s looking for it in the wrong place, writes Caroline Barlow 

Last week, Academies minister, Baroness Berridge came out strongly for the government’s policy of expanding MATs en masse. Hardly surprising. What was surprising was that her argument rested on an appeal for morality from those not currently in a trust.

Questioning another’s moral purpose is a novel approach to seeking a change in their position. And in our fragmented system, it’s a technique for motivating unity that isn’t entirely devoid of risk.

The academies minister is correct: the issue at hand is moral purpose. But not in the way stated. Her substantive point is about system re-alignment, and it’s perhaps questionable whether the morally-driven collaborative culture she describes will be achieved by the means she and the government propose.

Ethical approaches vary depending on desired outcomes. Are we seeking to be regarded as ‘virtuous’, displaying ‘righteous’ behaviours? Are we motivated by a sense of duty? Outcomes for a particular group or by a sense of greater good? All will drive the choices we make. None depend on being in a stand-alone school or trust.

In my experience, being in a trust has not prevented some leaders talking a good game of local collaboration while excluding students too swiftly, referring parents of students with SEND to other schools that will ‘better meet their needs’ or otherwise acting unethically in recruitment of staff or students.

Trusts can be fabulous, but they are not necessarily designed to reach across the system

These actions are born of the wider climate in which we work and displayed equally by trust and single-school leaders. Fear or pride drive these actions, which almost never intend to do harm. They are not unique to certain schools or leaders and don’t appear in a vacuum. And by my moral compass, they should not – as I was recently told – “be expected”.

In many ways, the level of collaboration achieved in the pandemic has been the profession’s finest hour. School leaders have earned the trust and admiration of their communities. But it’s one thing to virtuously share policies on CAGs, testing kits, PPE and risk-assessments and quite another to genuinely accept responsibility for all students in a locality equitably.

I have seen trust and single-school leaders recite superficial tropes of collaboration while in reality manoeuvring for position and baulking at the hard yards it takes to bring about mutual, co-operative school improvement.

There are trusts working brilliantly to take on and drive schools forward in difficult circumstances, proactively seeking to improve the system for all. Let’s recognise and celebrate them. But in 21 years of leadership I have seen many kinds of schools roll up their sleeves and put their differences aside to change the life chances for young people in a location.

In this MATopia envisaged by the government, what will prevent networks collaborating within but not between each other, leaving children in the middle of competing tribes? Trusts can be fabulous, but they are not necessarily designed to reach across the system.

Having worked on developing collaboration for school improvement in West and East Sussex since 2010, I understand exactly how hard it is. It has to overcome system-borne self-interest, competition and division. It requires clear over-arching leadership, shared aims and accountability, adequate resource and support. It requires commitment to a locality and a group of children, not all of which you may initially view as ‘yours’. It therefore requires integrity, and fidelity to a transformational journey for staff, students and families.

I run a highly successful school, and I am not sure we lack moral purpose. SLE, ELE and LLE capacity in depth is deployed across a wide variety of schools and students. We freely offer cross-structure and -phase CPL. We have a clear inclusive vision for our community and locality and we have tried numerous ways to be system leaders. But countless bids have fallen foul of checklists and ever-changing initiatives that preclude by location or demographic.

If you want strong schools to play a leading role in a genuinely collaborative structure, we are ready. But if nothing changes, then it’s not at all clear the system itself – rather than any individuals within it – will have the moral purpose for the task.

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