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Speaking of ethics

'ethics: moral principles that govern a person's behaviour or the conduct of an activity'

I have been part of a couple of discussions around ethics over the last week. The first was as a result of the seminar I attended at Edinburgh university around the development of literacy in early learners, and the second was a chat with my daughter, who is an occupational therapist working with adults with severe dementia. Both these, got me thinking more about ethics in education, for teachers school leaders and system leaders. I have been involved in a few discussions with Suzanne Zeedyk of Dundee University around the issues and problems when teachers and school leaders act, or take decisions, in ways that they know may well be detrimental to some learners. I have always seen this as an issue around values, but actually it is more than that, because it comes down to working ethically, and in the best interests of all learners, all the time.

At the Edinburgh event a question had been asked about the ethics of teachers, school leaders and their establishments understanding the ethics of using a one-size-fits-all blanket approach to learners who were facing difficulties in their learning. Sue Ellis of Strathclyde university spoke about how she had concerns about the ethics of schools, or local authorities, identifying groups of learners who were behind in their learning, then deciding to put all of those identified onto some sort of generic recovery programme. Sue argued that it was the responsibility of teachers to diagnose and identify individual learning issues in their learners, then take appropriate pedagogical action to address these. Her argument was that in any group of such learners, they will all have individual difficulties, which a generic approach or programme may well not be addressing. Is it ethically right for a teacher, school, or local authority, to say we are going to subject all these learners to the same approach or programme, because that is easier to organise and manage, rather than identify their individual issues and then work to address these?

My daughter was talking to me about other health-care professionals she has met, who just don't seem to get the whole issue around working and thinking ethically. She is currently completing her Masters and has been looking and thinking carefully about practice in healthcare settings for patients with acute dementia symptoms. One of the key issues for her has always been about seeing the individual in each person she works with, and understanding their life-story and how this can inform the actions of those seeking to work with and support them. She gets very annoyed when she sees individuals being subject to exactly the same approaches, and attitudes, because this suits the needs of the system, not the individual. She spoke of someone she met recently, from another setting, who had said if a patient is physically harming themselves she would think twice about sending staff to intervene, as that may put staff at risk. My daughter's question, and the one that formed immediately in my mouth, was 'how ethical is that?'

These two episodes got me thinking about how often I considered if I was working and acting ethically when I was a teacher, then as a school leader. If I am being honest, I can't remember many times when I thought about pure ethics in the actions I took or the decisions I made. I always prided myself in being clear about my personal and professional values, and tried to ensure my actions matched these. Ethics and values are of course closely linked. Ethics decide whether your actions are right or wrong, and are informed by your values. The key about ethics is that they set standards about what is acceptable and what is not both for ourselves as educators, and for those we would seek to educate. There is no doubt we, as educators, are in a position  of great influence in a learner's life and their holistic development, therefore it is crucial that we act ethically. This means seeing each individual as just that, and making sure we are being fair and equitable with them all, not just some of them.

My conversations with Suzanne and others, including parents, really got me thinking about the ethics of what we do in education. If we do not take the time to discuss and consider such issues, it is so easy for us to take the path of least resistance, taking action or making decisions that best meet the needs of the system rather than the learners and families we work with every day. When we face a period, such as now, of great change, driven by political masters or others, can we assure ourselves that we will always act ethically, or are we too easy to acquiesce to demands that we know are detrimental to those we really serve, learners? It is important that we use our professional knowledge and expertise to inform our actions as ethical professionals. Is it ethical to impose standardised testing onto five year olds, who are just beginning to develop and grow, when we know the results tell us nothing about how that child might develop in the future? Is it ethically correct to start grouping and setting learners as soon as they come into school, then attaching the labels they will carry throughout their school life? Is it right to make decisions for political expediency rather than to truly support learners and families? Is it ethical to spend time narrowing the curriculum and spending more time preparing young learners for tests, just because they are high-stakes for us? Is it right that we coach learners in how to pass exams, rather than continuing to educate them holistically?

I could go on with other similar questions, and no doubt people will come up with a range of responses. But, that is good, because we need to do the thinking and have the conversations if we are to be assured we are acting ethically, doing the best we can for all our learners, and for the right reasons. If we never take the time to consider ethics in our roles, the danger is that we do what we have always done, because that's what we do, or what we are told to do. Where's the ethics in that?

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