How do you tell right from wrong?

Ethical Challenges when allocating resources

[Notes of a Keynote Address to the Schools North East School Business Management Conference at St James’ Park, Newcastle on 13.06.19]

Good afternoon. I’m delighted to be here with you although I am suffering somewhat, having had tooth extraction last week. I am still on painkillers so, somewhat unusually for me, I am going to use more detailed notes than I usually do to make sure I stay on message and don’t wander into a painkiller induced haze.

I’ve been told that I can be a bit preachy on occasions, so apologies for that. I will temper my remarks but I should tell you that today’s talk contains the following trigger warnings:

  • A Shakespeare quote
  • A Spiderman reference
  • Reference to the funding crisis
  • And some discomforting moral dilemmas

Abstract from a Healthcare Sector paper

THe subject of ethics is much more prominent in the heathcare sector. It forms part of profession formation for nursing staff and doctors alike. It’s part of their basic training in a way that it isn’t yet in eduation.

I’m going to read you an extract from an NHS paper:

Resource allocation is a central part of the decision-making process in any health care system. Resources have always been finite, thus the ethical issues raised are not new. The debate is now more open, and there is greater public awareness of the issues. It is increasingly recognised that it is the technology which determines resources. The ethical issues involved are often conflicting and relate to issues of individual rights and community benefits. One central feature of resource allocation is the basing of decisions on the outcomes of health care and on their subsequent economic evaluation. The knowledge base is therefore of great importance as is the audit of results of clinical treatment. Public involvement is seen as an integral part of this process. For all parts of the process, better methodologies are required. [NB only some of this was quoted during the talk before I moved on to the next part of the address]

Oh my God – how boring does that sound?!

We are talking about the most important set of decisions made in any school or academy trust….. the decisions about when…. and how….. resources are allocated.

At first glance, this might not seem to be the case; ‘resource allocation’ sounds rather dull. That NHS paper certainly made it seem so but think about it: without a resource being allocated, nothing happens. Without a teacher, the class won’t get taught, without a room, they will have nowhere to learn, without tables they will have nowhere to write.

This is the first of the things I told you to look out for, Shakepeare said, ‘nothing comes of nothing’. A group of children brought together with no resources are not a school, they are just a crowd. Our decisions about the resources we allocate are what shapes the potential of the crowd. Resourcing decisions create conditions for something wonderful to happen.

Allocate resources to teaching French and voila! Linguists begin to emerge. Move money in the budget and music teachers join the payroll, instruments get bought and rehearsals begin.

Employ a form tutors and a head of year and pastoral needs begin to be addressed, barriers to learning get broken down and the spark of ambition gets fanned into flame. At the back of the crowd, a child’s head goes up and they think ‘Yes – I can do this!’ An engineer is born.

Am I being zealous? I don’t think so. These are the consequences of allocating resources.

You see, we tend to reduce budgeting to a spreadsheet-based exercise – can we make the numbers on the page dance so the bottom line balances? “Business manager know thy place”, But we are called to do so much more than that. Allocating resources gives us almost god-like powers to create something where there was nothing.

We are used to the phrase time equals money. But resource allocation runs the equation backwards and, for the most part in education money equals time: teacher time, support staff time. When we set the budget when can call new departments into being, we determine which courses will be offered. We can even make entire new schools appear. With the resources we don’t allocate to staffing, we make transport happen or textbooks appear.

I’m not particularly religious but, having gone down that line, I’ll stick with that language for a moment. How can I put this? The budget is our bible, it’s our guide and our prophecy. But one which we write. When we send a budget to the board, is it a technical document, a tick in the box for a job done? Or is it an expression of hope? A book of numbers which will call the future into being?

Now, and here’s the Spiderman reference, “With much power comes much responsibility”. We are under scrutiny like never before. The amounts we spend on salaries or on staff training events are being watched. Our pupil premium strategy is being scrutinised from all angles. Performance indicators related to curriculum planning are the subject of much debate. We are accountable for what we allocate resources to and what we don’t.

There isn’t enough money in the system for us to do everything we want, so we have to choose. This is the funding crisis I mentioned. We are making difficult choices and not everyone agrees with every choice we make.

How do we tell right from wrong?

Many of you in this room feel comfortable with knowing what’s right and what’s wrong. School business management is a very compliance orientated profession. We like putting ticks in boxes and generally getting stuff done.

But ethics is different – it’s based on an interpretation of the law and our sense of societal morality. Remember, the law itself, although codified and set out in statute, requires case law interpretation and precedent to be worked out in practice. Sometimes the only way to find out if something is legal is to kick it about in court – to make up a new sense of morality based on the arguments there and then.

7 Principles of Public Life

To help public servants do this ‘on the fly’, we have the 7 principles of public life – can you remember what they are? [as responses come in from around the room, define their meaning]

  1. Selflessness – School and college leaders should act solely in the interest of children and young people.
  2. Integrity – School and college leaders must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. Before acting and taking decisions, they must declare and resolve openly any perceived conflict of interest and relationships.
  3. Objectivity – School and college leaders must act and take decisions impartially and fairly, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias. Leaders should be dispassionate, exercising judgement and analysis for the good of children and young people.
  4. Accountability – School and college leaders are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
  5. Openness – School and college leaders should expect to act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from scrutiny unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing. Honesty School and college leaders should be truthful.
  6. Leadership – School and college leaders should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles, and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs. Leaders include both those who are paid to lead schools and colleges and those who volunteer to govern them.

I want to give you another list of words:

  • Trust
  • Wisdom
  • Kindness
  • Justice
  • Service
  • Courage
  • Optimism

Now I don’t know about you, but these are the things I want said about me in my obituary. They are the words that should be used about all school leaders. They come from the Ethical Leadership Commission.

The Ethical Leadership Commission was started by ASCL and other national organisations, ISBL supports its work. It is now housed in the Chartered College of Teaching and it is intended to inspire and facilitate an ongoing debate about ethical issues in education.

Through it’s work, we have been given some additional words to the Nolan Principles – the list I just gave you. There is a growing movement to promote and embed these principles in a meaningful way in education so that all our schools are places that promote moral decision making. This important because compliance will only get us so far. The principles of integrated curriculum financial planning are great but they don’t tell us ‘how’ to act, mrely that our budget balances.

Compliance will only get us so far

Leaders have complex, endless tasks to achieve and complete daily, termly, annually, by cohort and for policymakers and regulators.

It is easy to lose sight of the wider context for our work, and easy to answer our first question “how well am I doing as a trusted educator?” purely by quoting the metrics of accountability. The question: “what kind of role models are we?” should be even more important. If our schools and colleges have successful outcomes, they should be achieved by leaders leading thoughtfully and ethically. In that way we set a good example in our communities and to our children, to such an extent that the country itself would be in good shape if all children did as we do. Achieving good outcomes should be a result of doing a good job, not a proxy for it.


  • Let’s take GAG pooling as an example. Where does that sit in our moral framework?
  • When does low level non-compliance become something more serious? What gives you the right to decide? Do we want schools and trusts which are run to the letter of the law or does non-compliance suit us at some points? There probably isn’t anyone in this room who thinks a caretaker should be rebuked for just calling a roofing contractor to fix the slipped tile so that the school can open safely and on time – but that is technically non-compliance.
  • What about ski trips and sports tours? They creep into term time or take teachers away from their core roles whilst they do admin or fundraising for them during term time.
  • Are grammar schools ok? How do we feel about working in a selective school? Is that right? How do we set our moral compass?
  • How secure should staff jobs be in a failing school? If there are other schools or trusts nearby with a track record of school improvement should they be called in asap to help? Is ‘giving the existing staff a chance to turn things around’ morally the right thing to do for the pupils?
  • Is it ok to expect the DfE and our employers to fund SBM training when schools with sixth forms are preparing students to take on tens of thousands of pounds of date for the privilege of going to university? Why do they have to pay when they don’t have a job and we don’t but are earning?
  • Exclusion – the ultimate removal of all resources from that child for a fixed period or even permanently.

Our decisions should be proportionate

  • Non order invoices. A broken window is flapping in the wind. The caretaker calls a contractor to fix it. Is this OK? How big does the expenditure have to be before it is too big for this method of allocating and accounting for resources?
  • The removal of TA support reallocation of a TA from a large class to a smaller group. What are the issues here? Under what circumstances might it be the right thing to do?

The importance of courage

Sadly, doing what’s right may come at a personal cost – there will be colleagues in this room who have taken a stand against unethical practice and found their working lives harder as a result. In a sector where the ends is used to justify the means, speaking up is seen as taking sides, siding with the ‘other’, the naysayers and the resistant.

I want to say to anyone who is experiencing this pressure at the moment that I feel your pain and I know what you are going through. If you are in the situation where you think you need to challange practice, make two important phone calls – firstly call you union; they are they to support you right now as yuo take the ethical stance and secondly, call ISBL and tell us about your experiences. We will continue to lobby for a climate where your voice is valued and your counsel is accepted.

I want to tell you that not having the courage to speak up is all very well..until things go wrong. I worked in school once where it was the culture to turn off the fire alarm when it sounded and for SLT to go and find out if there was a fire. There had been so many false alarms due to poor behaviour that this had become accepted. But it shouldn’t have been. I knew that, the SLT knew that.

Then one day, the fuseboard outside my office began smouldering due to an electrical fault. I banged the fire alarm call point to evacuate the building, knowing what would happen next – sure enough, the alarm sounded briefly and was instantly silenced from the school office. I had to run through the school, barging staff out of the way, to get to the alarm panel and to sound the alarm from there. As I ran, I knew that my complicity with unethical practice was coming home to roost in that moment.

I share this, not because I am proud of it. Far from it – it was wrong and lives were endangered. I share it because we have to become comfortable talking about the things which bother us. When our antenae are up and our conscience is pricking, we need to talk to others and gather courage to do the right thing.

Cost / Benefit analysis

  • Perhaps the prevalence of ethical debates around resource allocation in healthcare stems from the fact they deal with our most precious commodity – life itself.
  • Cost-benefit analyses distill the “cost” and the “benefit” into purely monetary terms. However, healthcare professionals are introduced to other concepts such as cost effectiveness, in which the value of a particular course of treatment is expressed not in terms of pounds spent, but rather in terms of health outcomes such as life years gained.
  • One reason for using a cost-effectiveness approach is that we value health so highly and hesitate to view it in purely monetary terms. Good resource allocation decisions must involve more than a money-based analysis; they must reflect what society thinks is worth investing in.
  • What does this mean for us in education? Is investing money to help move a child from a grade 3 to a grade 4 more ethically acceptable than moving a high achieving child from and 8 to a 9 at GCSE?

Nothing happens in a vacuum

  • There isn’t the money for that Projects which get turned down for funding when there is money for other things
  • We can’t afford any more TAs Yes – taken as a line item in the budget, there is no more money for TAs, but the marketing budget is untouched and the annual pay rise remains in the budget….

Keep Calm and Carry On

  • The ethical leadership commission talk about this as perhaps the most fundamental of British values – that and a cup of tea! But they are right. Taking time to reflect on the resource allocation debate is important. Sleep on it, it will look better in the morning are all wise words when wrestling with insufficient resources.

Argue backwards

  • Adopt the opposing view and try to come up with as many reasons to do the thing you don’t want to that they have missed
  • Let’s do that now with exclusion – work in pairs. One of you needs to come up with 4 reasons why exclusion is acceptable, the other with 4 reasons why not. Then add two more points to the other person’s arguement

What issues are we silent on?

  • There are some issues which we are happy to put on the table for discussion; the ones which don’t affect us! But what are the issues we are silent on?
  • Earlier today, David [Cameron] challenged us to be wary of asking questions if we are not prepared to listen to the answers. He’s right – the issues which affect us and might result in us having to change are the ones which we are least likely to ask.
  • The 7 Principles of Public Life talk about selflessness but this is very hard to achieve with paid staff. Pretty much all of us go to work to earn a living which gives us a vested interest ensuring resources are allocated to salaries. We cut resources to the salaries of others before we cut those allocated to our own. Perhaps in any restructure, those proposing it should automatically be included in the proposal – so you can’t propose cutting TAs without automatically having leadership included? That would be a very different world wouldn’t it?

In conclusion

  • So, as you reflect on what’s been mentioned today and ask yourself if what your school or setting is doing is right? Pause and listen to the silence – what are the ethical questions which aren’t being asked and who should be asking them?