When we surveyed Edapt subscribers last year, we asked them if there is anything they’d like to see us so differently. One teacher said:

“Get us together to create a vision of the perfect education system. Rather than tinkering views here and there, Edapt should stand for something big…”

I was reminded of this comment last week when talking to Alexandra Schroeck, Director of Communications & Advocacy, at the Association of American Educators. Alex describes here how they are the non-union choice for educators in the USA. They work to promote “professionalism, collaboration and excellence without a partisan agenda”. They have developed a code of ethics for educators, devised by an expert advisory board, and shared with a number of educational organisations. At edapt we have only recently been in touch with the AAE, and have been surprised, given the differences between the USA and the UK, at the similarities in their overall aims and ours. As we are committed to focussing on providing the best levels of service for our teachers in terms of protection, policy and development, we therefore at present have no intentions to work towards developing a similar code of ethics.

Personally, however, I am intrigued by the role it could play. This belief was sparked in part by a conversation with a friend who worked in public health, and who talks about the importance of three elements – statistical evidence from medical research, biomedical science and medical ethics. In education, we’re beginning to make better use of evidence-based practice, and the equivalent of biomedical understanding – our understanding of how children learn – has an increasing profile. Michael Rosen called for teachers to ‘own the theory of their own practice’ by focussing on understanding how children learn at last year’s Festival of Education, and cognitive science is becoming more familiar through the work of scientists such as Daniel Willingham in his book, ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’  (helpfully summarised here by teacher Joe Kirby). This still, however, seems to be happening in a vacuum of educational ethics, which is allowing politics to continue to dominate where ethics should.

Director of the IoE Professor Chris Husbands, has warned of the dangers of comparisons with the medical profession, and prefers the term “quasi-clinical” on the basis that education is a universal service while health deals with pathologies. I think, nevertheless, there is still much to be learnt – especially from public health. Considerations such as the age group that screening programmes should target, or the introduction of a new inoculation programme can make for useful analogies with the introduction of new assessment programmes to detect the need for intervention – such as phonics screening, or the introduction of a new programme targeting underperformance – such as the pupil premium, as long as they’re not taken too literally.

When evidence is used in isolation from an understanding of how people learn, seemingly counter-intuitive conclusions are drawn. Lots of statistical research has shown evidence that reductions in class-size isn’t as significant as other factors in improving pupil outcomes, and yet lots of teachers would instinctively tell you that smaller class size would be the one thing that would make the most difference to them and their students. This is because the statistical evidence shows the results of a combination of factors – one of which is finding enough good teachers to teach the higher number of smaller classes – rather than isolating the impact on each pupil based on an understanding of how people learn. With synthetic phonics screening, research evidence shows that statistically teaching reading through synthetic phonics reduces gaps in achievement between those from a low socio-economic background and those from a higher socio-economic background. Yet every time I have visited a primary phonics lesson and seen children driven to read the words in front of them by a desire to understand a story, and then seen them stopped and told to instead sound out the words, I am left uncomfortable by this approach as it seems counter to everything I understand about the importance of pupil motivation in learning. Both also relate to the quality of childhood.

This leaves me with the question, is an evidence base enough to implement nation-wide practice? If a new screening programme was to be introduced in the interests of public health, decisions about the age or the regularity of screening would be based on the statistical evidence of effectiveness of screening. I’m no expert, but my understanding is that this statistical evidence wouldn’t, however, be taken on its own. There would be a medical understanding of why the statistics were the way they are, and what behavioural and medical factors were behind them. If this understanding threw up concerns about side effects or changes in behaviour, or how the approach might affect people with different medical profiles, further research would be done to find the further statistical evidence to support or nullify those concerns. Importantly, ethical considerations would also be factored into final recommendations – what would introducing this screening mean for quality of life, freedom of choice, or the ethics of using funding that could be spent elsewhere?

If all of this was translated to the examples of small class sizes, or phonics screening, if the statistical evidence showed results that were counter to an understanding of how people learn or the quality of childhood, further research would be done and ethical considerations analysed, all separately from political considerations.

In thinking about why we don’t discuss educational ethics in the same way, but instead seem to talk about ‘political ideologies’ instead, I wonder if what we’re missing is the underpinning understanding of the purpose of education. In medicine there is an accepted understanding that people have a right to life and a right to health – a right to access to medical treatment is only relevant if that treatment results in better health. The universal declaration of human rights includes a right to an education, and determines that education should be equally accessible, and that it should be directed towards the full development of a personality. There is a question around whether this means a right to have an education – equal access to schooling – or the right to be educated – an entitlement to reach a certain level of education. The right to ‘be educated’, as to ‘be healthy’, would raise many questions about what ‘being educated’ means, but just as asking what being alive means, or what being healthy means, it is a question that could be tackled by professionals based on evidence and ethics – rather than the political backwards and forwards-ing of working out whether education is, say, a tool for social mobility, or a tool for sorting out the economy, or for winning over the electorate.

If we accepted these rights, we could then leave it to the combination of statistical evidence, understanding of how people learn, and education ethics, to work out exactly what this means and how best to achieve it. The teaching profession – which in my mind incorporates those engaged in educational research as well as those engaged in the classroom – could own the evidence, own the understanding and own the ethics. The teaching profession could use the careful balance of these to dictate to the politicians what the most effective interventions are; what the fundamental level of education that all are entitled to should be in order to fulfil our commitment to human rights; what the priorities should be to ensure ethics and efficiency are considered. The politicians can then just be left to argue about how they think best to pay for it as the custodians of tax-payers money.

When headguruteacher calls for moral courage and Jon Coles calls for bravery, it seems they are in part talking about the importance of acting with professional integrity when deciding how to respond to constraints or challenges posed by politics, as much as those posed by parents, the press, exam companies or otherwise.

So could this professional integrity be prioritised and strengthened if education ethics was given the same priority in the training and development of teachers as medical ethics is?

Could the development of more MA courses in educational ethics be a part of this? At the moment, the only one is at the University of Brighton, where an applied ethics MA can become an education ethics MA if the right module is completed.

Or, could groups of teachers, such as the Headteachers’ Roundtable develop a code of ethics, as the Association of American Educators has?

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