Are school leaders increasingly at risk of losing their moral compass given the high stakes accountability landscape they operate within? Colin Cattanach, former Headteacher and Education leadership specialist considers what may be going on.

As a school leader, I was often asked what my values and vision for education were. Indeed, every decent school leader held to account in today’s turbulent education landscape holds basic values and a vision of what constitutes good education. These values and ideals held by leaders provide the framework for which decisions are made to improve the life chances of young people. These values characterize leadership behaviours and actions. These values are not just shared by the institution but are often deeply personal, reflective of the leader’s own life experience. So why is it that some leaders are possibly compromising their values and principles, beliefs and sound decision making and in effect losing their moral compass?

My view is that some school leaders are indeed losing their moral compass, or it is being infringed or put in danger by a complex set of factors at play in the chaotic, turbulent world of state education in England. These can best be examined as ‘Internal’ and ‘External’ factors that combined, provide a massive leadership dilemma for leaders that may cloud their judgement, decision making and behaviours with devastating effects not only for themselves, their schools, but the profession in general. This is a brief blog and not an exhaustive study so feel free to critique. Its purpose is to raise awareness of possible key processes at play which impact leadership behaviours and actions.

3 key Internal factors
From my experience working with many leaders over 26 years, human decision making is not always rationale and may be influenced by personal motivations.


Greed is an internal factor. Some leaders are motivated by money and wealth and aspire to be promoted, often sadly beyond their capabilities in some circumstances to obtain the best possible salary and trappings of wealth. Now in educational circles, this idea is always dismissed but I don’t buy that. The recent revelations of eye watering MAT CEO salaries and pension pots reveals that some people are possibly motivated by greed given that many other people in their organizations earn much less. Some CEOs of MATS talk about paying the ‘market rate’ as a justification for excessive salaries but this doesn’t cut it. The freedoms of academes have allowed some leaders to arrange their own salaries with little oversight and scrutiny leading to massive salary bills in times of austerity.

Power & Status

Some school leaders just get ‘off’ on the power and status. This will prove controversial, but it is simply true. Some leaders grasp for power and some use it wisely others less so; resulting in toxic working conditions for others. The abuse of power in our school system coupled with lack of transparency and strong accountability (despite what people may say about academies being strongly regulated) provides the optimum environment for leaders to take risks and at times, seize opportunities to behave inappropriately for personal gain, secure their position and hide their weaknesses.

School leaders who find themselves in vulnerable positions, perhaps due to personal problems, lack of leadership skills and attributes such as confidence, fear or other inhibiting factors such as mental health may take decisions that they will perceive will protect them but may not be particularly moral. A good example of this is school leaders who are tempted to off -roll children to improve league tables standings. Their values and principles go out of the window due to fear factors about being judged as failing. So, decision making is skewed, and the moral compass is broken. Some leaders under intense pressure from governors may feel that the only way to succeed is to cheat the system. The fall guys are the most vulnerable children that need the most support.

Three main External factors


The big one is Ofsted. I could write a book on my Ofsted experiences over 26 years. But I shall save that for another day. Ofsted impacts on school leaders every day. There is a saying in education that you are only as good as your most recent Ofsted or set of results. This is not going to be a blog that bashes Ofsted. I am planning a more thorough critique of Ofsted later but what I do say, I feel is important. Ofsted can make or break careers. A bad Ofsted can lead to a school leader not only feeling the pain for his/her school but it can be personally devastating given the social capital most leaders put into their schools. It can ruin lives and it can make people ill. This is the reality for some school leaders. So, in readiness for Ofsted, school leaders may do crazy things like change data, bring in teachers who don’t normally work at the school, ensure the ‘more challenging’ children are on an ‘educational trip’ or as favoured at moment ‘work experience’ so that they don’t meet the inspectors. School leaders have been known allegedly to get other school teachers to mark work for book Ofsted book checks.  Now some may see this as tactics to get a good inspection outcome; for me its leaders working chaotically and losing their moral compass.


League Tables
Now I am a little biased here. I think league tables are a nonsense and hugely damaging to schools and school leaders. They often  determine the curriculum in state secondary schools by and large. Progress 8 – yes that flawed instrument used to beat up headteachers and the key data that will put you into RI or worse. So, leaders search the internet, find a nice little course that can be done in 3 days, validated by the DFE and adds points to your P8 score but has no educational merit or a meaningful experience for students. Curriculum design on the hoof, reactive to the needs of league tables and not planned for the needs of children. And if you dare to be reckless and provide a curriculum which doesn’t give the magic P8 scores, you are doomed. Just ask a headteacher of an establishment that believes in high quality vocational education or a curriculum that has music, the Arts and sport central to its DNA. So league tables have affected leaders decision making with respect to curriculum planning but also in a more sinister way, some schools have even done a bit of ‘ability cleansing’ whereupon some key stage 4 students mysteriously find themselves in AP, off roll , being home educated or recommended to the pleasant, small, school down the road that seems to be able to meet every child’s need? League tables have a lot to answer for with respect to creating chaos for the moral compass.

MATS – Multi academy Trusts
The game changing policy of our government. Again, MATS could have their own book. I am not fundamentally against MATS but there are some serious issues emerging that are impacting on leader’s moral compasses. The secret society known as MATS. The lack of transparency in some MATS defies belief and they are akin to secret clubs. Getting minutes from key decision-making forums within MATS often requires FOI request and then the minutes are meaningless to the reader as they are often heavily redacted. The secret nature of some MATS breeds behaviours that lack transparency. This is not a good framework for maintain a good moral compass in my opinion. MATS in their drive to expand are increasingly viewed as distant from the communities they serve and therefore legitimately questions can be asked by stakeholders about whether they are serving the needs of schools effectively or just a government policy to disenfranchise key stakeholders? The jury is still out on MATS but the evidence building up is of a negative picture – how often do we read about a MAT doing wonderful things for its community. Well we do. For balance,  The Aldridge MAT that looks after the Kensington school did an amazing job for its community following the tower block fire. The moral compass here was strong,  compassionate, robust and people centered.

So what next?
School leaders today are under increasing strain to always improve on previous best. The notion of total quality management or striving for continuous improvement should not be thrown away. Its central to our young people’s future. But I fear we are living in times when school leaders are under siege. Lack of resources, an accountability framework which is unforgiving and key players in the external environment making rash and unvalidated judgements all contribute to the stress. Coupled with a recruitment and retention crisis neve known before and resource limitations, school leaders have a lot on their plate.

But school leaders must be true to themselves. They must not be tempted by personal greed to have excessive salaries. The must not abuse power but support their staff. Great leaders don’t abuse power. Great leaders have strong moral compass. Great leaders don’t blame others. For me, keeping an eye on the moral compass is essential to be a great leader.  We still have some great leaders in education and we desperately need to grow more and equip with them with  a working moral compass.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then you are a leader” That’s what all school leaders need to remember and do every day even in these turbulent times. And don’t forget the compass!

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