The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Leading ethically during COVID-19

We have seen some magnificent examples of civic leadership exercised by local authorities, schools and trusts during COVID-19 – leaders acting with professional generosity and mutual reciprocity.

We have always accepted that the highest form of accountability is to the people and communities we serve – this is not a new concept. It is the cornerstone of accountability in any established profession. And it has never been more important.

Leora Cruddas

In Cambridgeshire, the Director of Education, Jonathan Lewis has shown superb leadership by bringing civic actors including the local authority, schools and trusts together to co-construct solutions for schools and wider community services during the crisis. This is also true in Peterborough. And likewise, in Cornwall, a COVID-19 group comprising of multiple civic actors including schools and trusts have led the way.

Colleagues have worked together not in a dependency relationship, but as truly civic leaders.

Their leadership has been underpinned by the profession-led Framework for Ethical Leadership. What we are learning in this time of crisis is that it has never been more important that our leadership is rooted in the principles of public life. Local authorities, schools and trusts are public authorities. As such we hold trust on behalf of children and we will act together to protect the value of the child and the quality of education in our local areas.

Our principles, values and ethics are enacted in our decisions.

So, I would like to return to those principles and think about what they might mean now – in the context of the crisis for the way we work together as civic leaders. And by civic leaders, I mean those responsible for executive decision-making and those responsible for governance.

Selflessness
The Framework for Ethical Leadership says that we should act solely in the interest of children and young people. And this is what we are doing. Amidst the sound and fury, we have put vested interests aside. Despite our fears and uncertainties, we have kept our schools open for those children who have most needed our care and support. We have served the national effort.

And now again, as we plan to open our schools more widely, it is the safety of our pupils, our staff and our communities uppermost in our mind as we put careful plans in place to mitigate risks to health and safety.

Integrity
Integrity is about both our morals – our beliefs about what is right or wrong – and the guiding principles that help us to make good decisions. So, as we have been asked to develop our plans to open schools more widely, we have acted with integrity to ensure that we have made the best possible decisions based on the evidence available to us.

Objectivity
We have taken decisions impartially, using the best evidence we have. Although there is a battle for public opinion and a febrile debate, we have remained objective in exercising judgement for the good of children and young people, our staff, and communities.

It is easy to get caught up in the politics and the high emotion that a crisis inevitably generates. It is much harder to remain objective – to see through the sound the fury and to keep in focus our core purpose.

Accountability
We have always accepted that the highest form of accountability is to the people and communities we serve – this is not a new concept. It is the cornerstone of accountability in any established profession. And it has never been more important.

Those responsible for governance should be explicit and eloquent in measuring the things the school or trust values. These measures should include but should not be constrained by the government’s measures. In a democracy, it is important to understand and accept that government has a right to determine a framework for public accountability.

In this crisis, we understand and accept the duty to be accountable. This is why we are paying such careful attention to the decisions we make about opening schools more widely – not out of fear of liability – but because we want to do what is right.

Openness
We know that our pupils, staff and communities expect us to act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. In a time of national crisis, this is crucial. We will only build the trust and confidence of parents and communities if we are open and honest.

Honesty
Historically, polling at population level shows consistently that parents trust teachers and head teachers. They do so because we are calm and measured. We do not overreact. They trust us to tell the truth.

In the context of this national crisis as the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has said in recently published papers that teachers, parents, and children must feel safe – it is important to include them in messaging and build their confidence. We will do this by being honest about the risks but explaining calmly and clearly how we will learn to manage the risks together.

Leadership
As executive and governance leaders, our responsibility to be civic-minded and work with other civic actors has never been more vital. What we do in schools and what happens in the community are interdependent in new and critical ways in the context of the virus.

Leading ethically in a way that protects the value of the child and the right to an education is a harder task than ever. But metal is formed in heat. We will be at our best in this time of adversity.