The moral purpose of education: some questions

SSAT senior education lead Dan Belcher shares some findings and thoughts on his ongoing research into moral leadership in education.

There are many reasons why people become teachers – for most (at least, when the question is asked at interview!) there is a moral purpose behind it; a desire to make a difference, a belief in the value of education, and hopefully too a genuine care for children.

But if you dig deeper, the reasons can be much more personal – our experiences, good and bad, have a profound impact on us. There may have been someone who inspired us, made us believe in ourselves and changed the direction of our lives. Alternatively, we may have felt let down by those responsible for our education, we may have seen and experienced injustices or inequalities, or been told we were no good and would never amount to anything. These experiences shape who we are, our sense of right and wrong, and how we lead our lives – and influence those of others.

As part of research I am doing into moral leadership I’ve been struck by the importance of understanding ourselves, our personal journey and how this affects our leadership behaviours.

Reflect for a few minutes on those things that led you into teaching and have shaped your moral values as a teacher and leader. Ask yourself:

  • Why did I become a teacher or school leader?
  • Who or what has made me who I am today?
  • What are my core beliefs and values?
  • How do I seek to live by these values day by day?
  • Could I give an example from the last week/month of my values in action?

In 10 strong claims about successful school leadership (2010, p.7), researchers found that successful leaders share certain attributes and hold common core values:

  • a strong sense of moral responsibility and a belief in equal opportunities
  • a belief that every pupil deserves the same opportunities to succeed
  • respect and value for all people in and connected with the school
  • a passion for learning and achievement
  • a commitment to pupils and staff.

These may not come as a surprise, you are probably nodding in agreement. In fact most leaders I speak to would talk about values such as social justice, putting children first, equity, championing the disadvantaged, high expectations and respect. However, below the surface we might uncover a more nuanced interpretation based on personal experiences. What do these values look like under the microscope, if they are really lived out in practice and not just laminated on walls and presented in mission statements?

Take ‘a belief in equal opportunities’:

  • How do you provide all children with equal opportunities to have their talents recognised, and to succeed?
  • What impact is setting, grouping and labelling having on pupils’ self-worth, their achievement or their interactions with others?
  • How might separating or segregating children by attainment, finance or background be reinforcing rather than reducing social inequalities and societal barriers?

Or consider ‘a commitment to pupils and staff’:

  • Do the staff in your school behave every day as if they truly believe people are its most valuable asset? If not, what would change if they did?
  • Do all staff feel valued, supported and cared for? Are all staff given opportunities to develop?
  • When looking at pupil data, do you always remember the individual children and see them represented as if they were your own?*

*Data abstracts people, especially large data. Hargreaves and Shirley (2009) argue that our preoccupation with performance has reduced successful leadership to the translation of students into ‘good data’.

What about your ‘passion for learning and achievement’?

  • Do you to go to work with a spring in your step ready for another challenging day of sharing your passion for learning? What is your driving motivation?
  • Do you believe all children can achieve? What makes you believe this?
  • How do you seek to inspire others with a passion for learning? To what extent do you rely on extrinsic motivators (rewards, consequences), and to what extent on intrinsic motivators (enjoyment and value)?

These can be big and complex questions. By reflecting on them individually and collectively, we can better understand ourselves, each other and our common purpose.

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