It goes without saying that almost all boards act ethically.  And those few boards that are falling short ethically MUST lift their game for a myriad of legal and other reasons that can be summarised in one word – risk.

However, although all boards strive to act ethically, there is a surprising lack of consensus on what constitutes ethical behaviour.

When the word ‘ethics’ is used generally in everyday conversations, it is often equated to similar concepts such as morality, virtue, and goodness.  For school boards and leaders, what constitutes ethical behaviour in practice may become more nuanced and less clear-cut.

Ethics represents one area where it is helpful for board members and school leaders to step back from time to time, look at the big picture, re-examine their own positions, and ask the question “what do WE really mean when we claim that we act ethically?”.

Ethical behaviour in the board room (humour)

A basic understanding of the three broad theories of ethics can be very helpful in answering this Big Question (with sincere apologies to my readers with degrees in philosophy for the highly abbreviated summary of ethical theories in the following three paragraphs).

Some ethicists argue that ethics is essentially a matter of doing your duty and fulfilling your obligations.  This is known as duty ethics, or the deontological approach, advocated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  Kant claimed that everyone has three core motivations for doing good: (1) you expect something in return, (2) sympathy, and (3) duty.  He claimed that actions have moral value only if they arise from duty.  In other words, the end does not justify the means; purity of motive is all-important.

A second approach is utilitarianism, which is closely related to consequentialism, in which the ends do justify the means.  In other words, it is the consequences or results of actions and policies, that determine whether they are good or bad, right or wrong.  In utilitarianism, there is one and only one supreme moral principle - we should seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.  Maximise happiness!  Happiness = good.  Unhappiness = bad.

A third approach is religious ethics.  The world’s religions are sources of moral insight and guidance to millions of people.  In the case of theistic religions, ethics flow from revealed truth from divine sources.  Many believe that the “Golden Rule” - treat others as you want to be treated - is a common factor in many religions.  Christian, Jewish and Islamic ethical approaches are the opposite of utilitarianism, in that rather than measuring goodness by the care we give to the largest number people, goodness is measured by the care we give to the most vulnerable.

School boards and leaders set the tone and the quality of ethical standards that permeate the entire organisation.  These ethical standards define the school’s moral compass, what is considered acceptable and not acceptable, and what is considered to be “good” and “bad”.  It is ethical standards of honesty and integrity that help define the school’s identity and its standing among its stakeholders and within the wider community.

It follows from this that schools should articulate their code of ethics (which may also be called a code of practice) and make it widely available in an open, transparent manner, such as on their websites.  Of course, this applies not only to schools but to associated organisations, such as this one.

For the ethical stance of school leaders and boards to be effective, it is worth articulating to one another which ethical approach (or balance of ethical approaches) is underpinning discussions, meetings, policies and, perhaps most importantly of all, the mission and strategic vision.  

Optimal School Governance has a stimulating, entertaining and insightful workshop that can help school leaders and board members discern and clarify their own ethical priorities, thus making group discussions and work much more focussed and productive.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Send an e-mail to to find our more about our stimulating, entertaining and insightful workshop on ethics for school leaders and board members.

Read about SMART, our evaluative tool that assesses how effectively a school is achieving its mission, vision and ethical objectives, with additional details on the SMART webpage

Board meetings and dynamics are developed in detail in our workshop OSG-S1 Board Operations

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