Ethics in Education

Ethics in Education - An over obsession with the numbers

  • By Ian White
  • 10 May, 2016

Why we ethically compromise - An over obsession with the numbers

An over obsession with the numbers is an important sign, or indicator, within the seven signs, that ethical compromise is on the cards, as reviewed in my last blog. Just being aware of the seven signs can help in itself, and once we recognise the issue, we can then take steps to do something about it.

If you missed our introduction to ethics in education, then take a look so that you have the context of what this blog is about —

An over obsession with the numbers can lead to ethical compromise because leaders and senior leaders move their focus to meeting the numbers at all and any cost. Numbers are important. We want to improve and gain better and higher standards as well as measure ourselves against other educational establishments, but it is when the numbers are unrealistic and everything becomes about the meeting those numbers, that we can find ourselves ethically compromising.

Ethical compromise may not lead to problems today or tomorrow, but it builds up problems and disaster for the future. The important thing to realise is that none of us are immune, and we could all succumb to an over obsession with meeting the numbers.

“Numbers pressure impairs judgement and robs dignity.” – Marianne Jennings

So what might those numbers be? Results, outcomes, attainment, achievement, progress, attendance, value added, pupil premium, SEND, boys, NEET to name a few and with them unrealistic timescales to be achieved.

Well there are plenty of ‘numbers’ to go at in terms of the accountability measures that are imposed, as well as the high stakes that go along with not meeting them. So, our Chief Executive Officer, the Government, displays the type of behaviour that can lead to ethical collapse and compromise in the education system alongside Ofsted, who are able to police those numbers (some school leaders would do this anyway, without the DfE setting accountability targets). The scene if you like, is set. This may very well be unintentional, but intent is not a requirement in order to see the process unfold and apply ethical pressure to our education system.

There is a “Meet your numbers or you are out of a job” narrative, alongside “Meet the numbers but don’t do anything stupid” and “If we don’t hit the numbers, we are all in trouble”.

There are two strategic alternatives to bringing about improvement and building a great educational institution.


1.   Look at the targets, what needs to be achieved, work back from those numbers and make what you have work in order to meet the numbers.


2.   Look at the brutal truth of where you are, project forward from that truth to see where you are heading and what outcome you are likely to get.


The First Alternative – Likely to produce ethical compromise

Now the main difference is this, with the first approach you are likely to put your energies into manipulating the here and now in order to meet the numbers. You work your strategies on the superficial rather than the substantial.  

What happens when you realise you are unlikely to deliver on the outcomes? How far are you willing to go? How far are you willing to justifying your actions and strategies to yourself and others?

Remember that it is the pressure to ethically compromise that causes good people, well-educated people, people who have a moral compass and honest intent, to do things that they never thought they would do.   Or, to put it another way, to be pragmatic. This blog aims to explore building a framework to resist and become resilient to that pressure.

So what sort of things might you do that could be deemed ethically questionable? Well here are a few examples;

•    Change courses mid-year in order to increase grades, maybe from GCSE to Vocational (or vice versa), or drop some courses, change examination boards, force all students to study Ebacc subjects (career guidance becomes career directed), put lower ability students on triple science, don’t enter certain students for examinations (gaming the system).

•    Expel students who will miss their targets, or move them to an alternative provision or a studio school, pay other schools to take students or persuade parents to home school.

•    Change the timetable to reduce a broad and balanced curriculum and over focus on Maths and English.

•    Blur the lines of what ‘supporting’ students means; turn a blind eye.

•    Pressurise staff by linking the unrealistic outcomes to their performance management and pay, or even project a veiled (or not so veiled) threat of capability concerns if the numbers are not met.

•    Manipulate current data to show more progress or attainment than there actually is.

•    Move your best teachers to Year 11 or Year 6, focus all of your resources there, provide more time and money for those year groups, and stop investing in the future.


Laura McInerney, Editor of Schools Week , has produced some great research and editorial pieces on these issues. This one, among many, is worth a look, “Superheads – the true cost to schools.” -

What is wrong with these actions, why should we be concerned? One serious reason is that they are fake, they are not true improvement, and they are quick fixes. Short term success followed by medium term failure. Importantly, though many are legal, they are not ethical, and it would be difficult to argue that they are in the best interest of students and parents.

It is worth asking: are those latest school results realistic and possible? Are year on year improvements of a high order likely, realistic, or possible? Could they be fake? When the numbers are very good and improvement rapid, often fewer questions are asked, schools are lorded, honours are bestowed, press releases made, whereas from an ethical point of view, maybe more questions should be asked. If it doesn’t seem possible, it probably isn’t real. There are examples of schools once lorded by ministers, now causing some embarrassment further down the road.

It is also worth asking: what does this approach do to people? What toll does it take on senior leaders, staff, students and parents? What dignity has been lost?

We believe that ethical compromise leads to ethical collapse, leads to poor outcomes for the school and for people – that is one reason why ethics are so important. The truth will out at some point, and when it does occur, Government and Ofsted seem oblivious to the point that they have, to a large extent, created the right conditions for ethical compromise, with this first sign—an over obsession with the numbers.


The Second Alternative – Unlikely to produce ethical compromise

With this second approach, you are likely to put your energy and strategies into solving problems and working out how to actually improve things over time, which will improve results, make them sustainable, and real.

When the school and senior team are no longer spending all their time trying to make things look better, they can spend their time working hard to actually improve the business, coach, mentor, strategise, and get their hands dirty.

Momentum takes time to build—it is hard work at the beginning with little movement to show for it, but when it builds, it has an energy all of its own.

With courageous goals firmly fixed in the brutal and harsh realities of the weaknesses of the school and leadership, there can be strategies suggested that are based on that reality and from these, actions will become obvious and meaningful.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t happen quick enough for some, and gratification for success has to wait a little longer. Through the medium and long-term possibilities are a world-class education system, great institutions, great learning and great outcomes.


How to be resilient to an over obsession with the numbers:


•    Determine to follow the second approach.

•    Set out your values about meeting the numbers and set all your goals in line with your values. Publish and live by these values.

•    Set higher standards than ‘it is legal or doable’, ask yourself, is it ethical?

•    Get to know what unethical practices are around in education, identify them, list them, publish them, avoid them.

•    Discipline those who achieve results via unethical practices.

•    Watch your non-verbal communications, what you don’t say, what you might imply.

•    Find ways for staff, students and parents, to hold up a red flag, take these seriously, meet about them, publish your findings and the actions  that you take.

•    Have an ethical policy and stick to it, without exceptions.


We will continue to ask the question: Do ethically sound schools achieve better outcomes in the medium to long term, and do ethically compromised schools fail in the medium to long term?


Next blog: Ethics in education – Fear and Silence

(A blog on the type of leader who champions these two approaches is also on the way!)


We would really appreciate your views on this subject. We have a short survey, and if you could complete it then we can include your views in our research:

Much of this thinking and ideas stem from the book ‘The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse’ by Marianne Jennings as well as ’Good to Great’ by Jim Collins

‘Ethics in Education’ – A new research based project by David Howard, Clare Wolfenden, and Ian White (Bradford College, England, UK).

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