Ethics in Education

Ethics in Education - Fear and Silence

  • By Ian White
  • 15 Jun, 2016

Ethics in Education - Fear and Silence

This blog follows the seven indicators of ethical compromise, which give us warnings, indicators, and red flags, that we should look at, reflect on, because if these signs are present, then there is a greater chance of being ethically compromised.

The first indicator is when there is a pressure and over-obsession to maintain the numbers (see the previous blog).

This second indicator is; Fear and Silence . These are enemies of an ethical culture.

If we think about our organisation, our school or academy, how easy is it to dissent? Now I know that it may be easy to say that people can speak their mind, openly express views and concerns, but how easy is it really? What happens when they do?

One thing that is certain, in organisations where things have gone wrong there were always employees who knew what was going on and often they wanted to or tried to speak up. Who will be the first to step into the firing line? How mean is the boss and how ruthless are they prepared to be?

Reasons for staying silent :

  • Careers might be damaged, references might be poor, people overlooked for promotions, possibly sacked or forced out
  • No-one else is speaking up, there is a need to fit in, there is a culture of silence, a need to be seen as loyal to the team
  • People are indebted in some way to the organisation or leader, possibly financially tied in
  • Perks, bonus or a pay rise might be put at risk
  • Public humiliation or being shouted down, belittled, insulted, other reprisals, line managers who become annoyed
  • Hiding the facts now in the hope that things will be better next month, next term or next year

We may have worked in an organisation where fear and silence are enforced and rewards for compliance are given. We may know how hard it is to function in these organisations and how hard it is to speak out.

The most important person in this whole culture is of course the Headteacher, Head of School or Executive Headteacher, though others in leadership also have a big influence. Their actions speak more than words and can establish a culture where ethics are compromised and the resulting consequences, personal and organisational, can be severe.

It is interesting at this point to think again about our bosses at the DFE and also OFSTED. There can be little doubt, whether intended or not, both organisations have instilled a culture of fear and silence in schools and there is no doubt that this has in turn led to a culture where ethical compromise is more likely. How do leaders become resilient to this? How would we act differently if that pressure was not there?

This brings the point, that it can be leadership who are subject to fear and silence, including the Headteacher, but primarily Deputy Headteacher and Assistant Headteachers – where there should be challenge and holding to account there can be none. This can also apply to Governors.


What can we do to encourage a culture where people can speak out?

Tell your staff that they need to speak out about concerns, that the organisations needs them to, and provide ways for them to do so, anonymously if they chose

  • Provide a way for staff to report directly to Governors and anonymously if they chose
  • Do not conduct reprisals for any staff who do speak out; this must be clearly seen by all staff
  • State clearly how staff are protected when they do speak out
  • Have a annual reward for staff who behaved ethically
  • In performance management reviews have an ethical component to a target
  • Communicate to staff that bad news happens and you do not need to only hear good news stories
  • Do not employ leaders who instil fear and silence and challenge this behaviour robustly


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?

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Next blog: Ethics in education – Larger than life leaders


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, Janet Oosthuysen and Ian White (Bradford College, England, UK).


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