The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Gareth D Morewood

Why we need more ethical SEND leaders

Knowing and doing what is right should be a SENCO's guiding principle, irrespective of outside pressure. Gareth Morewood makes the case for ethical leadership.

As we professionals continue to struggle with the injustices of a system that seems to work well for very few young people and their families, I call for a more ethical approach to SEND. We might not be able to change overnight the complex processes that the reforms have given rise to since 2014, but one thing anyone involved can do is approach their work with integrity and without bias.

As human beings, should we not strive for the highest moral standards, irrespective of our individual roles and influence? As a SENCO I try to be open and honest in everything I do, through:

  • knowing the law
  • advocating strongly for young people and their families
  • supporting a clear solution-focused approach based upon improving outcomes and preparation for adulthood.

This is often challenging, but working collaboratively with families is an important way for the SENCO to make a difference from a robust ethical and moral position, which is increasingly important in these trying times.

Why is ethical leadership important?

I was first introduced to the notion of ethical leadership in a meeting with Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School & College Leaders (ASCL), in which we discussed what we mean by ‘inclusion’ in today’s society.

Not only did the idea leave a positive impression on me, but also prompted me to consider what it means with respect to SEND and SEND leadership – in other words, what it means to be a SENCO.

I started to think about what ‘ethical’ meant to me. Our ethics are the values and morals we as individuals, or as a society determine to be desirable or appropriate. It concerns how virtuous we are and what motives we have for our actions. A leader's decisions are influenced by their moral development and their values.

I wonder how many colleagues feel unable to fulfil the duties of the SENCO with true moral stance, under financial or result-orientated pressure.

'Ethical leadership is leadership that is directed by respect for ethical beliefs and values and for the dignity and rights of others. It is thus related to concepts such as trust, honesty, consideration, charisma and fairness.'

Wikipedia entry for 'Ethical leadership'

A fresh approach

My SENCO colleagues often ask me for advice on how to navigate difficult situations, when external pressure prevents them from acting as they would wish.

Many working professionals face this ethical dilemma, and some find themselves in particularly challenging quandaries when trying to balance individual circumstances with other factors, their leadership driven by the need to hit external targets.

After having some of these discussions at a recent SENCO training event, I knew I needed a firmer grasp on what unethical leadership might be if I were to better understand how we might make any improvements.

Brown and Mitchell (2010) describe unethical leadership as ‘behaviours conducted and decisions made by organizational leaders that are illegal and/or violate moral standards, and those that impose processes and structures that promote unethical conduct by followers.’

From many recent conversations, I’m fairly confident that most parents and carers in the current SEND system would agree with that definition. However, although other professionals (LA officers, for example) are often painted in a dark light, I know of a significant number who are disempowered by the system and cannot find a way through.

The ethical SENCO

This is a ‘call to action’, a requirement for the SENCO to be as ethical and honest in their leadership as possible. How do you achieve this, especially if you are a SENCO caught between serving competing masters?

For me, to be an ethical SENCO, you need to have:

  • an unambiguous philosophy for SEND, which you articulate in your school’s Information Report
  • a sound understanding of the law and a commitment to lawful practice
  • a clear and open understanding of your personal, ‘core beliefs’ that underpin provision
  • a strong sense of purpose in working towards outcomes and preparation for adulthood
  • most importantly of all, an honest approach to your work.

I was recently reminded about the ‘manifesto for change’ outlined almost three years ago. Similarly, this call to action is to start the development of a new style of SEND leadership. Let us remember that is isn’t just the SENCO who leads on SEND, for it is everyone’s business.

What can you do?

As a leader, I like to distil complex situations into clear manageable actions, and navigate profound challenges into simple solutions. You might argue that this is a Sisyphean task. However, here are my action points for a change in momentum. Are you with me?

  • Ensure a positive regular meeting with your link governor, setting the right tone.
  • Arrange regular parent/carer groups and meetings, to share your vision and hear families’ views.
  • Ensure your Information Report reflects the ethos of the school, if it doesn’t remember this should be co-produced, work with parents and carers in developing it further.
  • Know the law and work within a strong knowledge base – the law trumps all.
  • Never forget that the young person is central to your concerns – listen to them.

Whatever your current position, however ‘influential’ you feel, we can all make a significant difference, and from humble beginnings grow strong philosophies.

‘A rose started off a bud, a bird started off an egg, and a forest started off a seed.’

Matshona Dhliwayo

More from Optimus

From vision to action: establishing a vision for your school

Developing inclusive practice: an international perspective

Mythbusting SEND: why the law still trumps all


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