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First principles: Nolan and the ethics of education

Image by Joey Kyber via unsplash

First principles: Nolan and the ethics of education

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Martin MatthewsMartin Matthews is a National Leader of Governance, a chair of governors and has been a governor on several governing bodies across Greater Manchester as well as a Manchester Challenge governor champion. In the next few years Martin will have served more years as a governor than he has been alive – in the meantime he tweets at @mm684

Over the past few months I have seen an increasing call for public service to have an ethics code linked to morality. This is all very well – and important, after all schools, academies, local authorities and multi-academy trusts are responsible for vast sums of public money..

The strange thing is that we seem to have a form of collective amnesia – as we’ve had a code for the last twenty years.

Michael Patrick Nolan – ethics man

The Nolan principles were written and introduced before the MPs’ expenses scandal, before the high salaries of MAT Chief executive officers and before leases on Jaguars for senior educators. They are clear, succinct and difficult to misinterpret. Why are they so out of fashion they have been forgotten by most?

To go back to the beginning, these are The Seven Principles of Public Life:

  1. Selflessness;
  2. Integrity;
  3. Objectivity;
  4. Accountability;
  5. Openness;
  6. Honesty;
  7. Leadership.

Their order is not a coincidence. Public service (including paid public servants) must start with selflessness. Selflessness should be the bedrock of all public service. All the other principles flow from this. Governance in education has selflessness as its heart; put the children first.

“Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.”
Nolan principle one.

Put the people of your service before your self-interest, empire or ego.

Integrity is clearly defined as avoiding being placed under obligation to any person or organisation – some aspects of this have caused some individuals problems within education, but again the Nolan principles are uncompromising

“They should not do so to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.”
Nolan principle one.

Objectivity, accountability and openness go hand in hand and typify great leadership. We should make decisions fairly, be accountable for what we do and not unnecessarily withhold information. How hard is that?

As governors we exist and operate as a team – and arrive at complex and difficult decisions by working through the issues methodically and objectively. We should be clear how we reach that point and collectively be able to explain both the process and the decision. People may not agree with us – but if we are open and fair they can appreciate why the decision has been made. As a governor said to me “Would the decision look good as a newspaper headline?” Not spin, but understandable by the community you serve.

It has always troubled me that honesty has to be included. Personally, I cannot understand dishonesty in public service. We are here to spend taxpayers’ money, pay salaries and account for what we have done. The cases of teachers being struck off where a career ends because of selling textbooks, charging personal photographic equipment to school expenses or misappropriating trip money make me very sad. The story of how this person has been driven to the point is rarely simple – but such behaviour remains unacceptable. Financial processes are there for a reason and should always be followed.

The L word

Lastly the great zeitgeist of education today: leadership.

Again, Nolan is succinct to the point of brutal;

“Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.”
Nolan principle seven.

In our sector it could be summed up – children come first, all decisions should focus on them and what is best for their education.

Questions for your board:

  • When was the last time we examined the reasons for decisions we have made as a board?
  • Can we point to examples – either within our board or beyond when, on reflection we made a bad decision?
  • If that was the case, how did that decision hold up against the Nolan principles?
  • Are we aware of decisions we might have to make in the short- or medium-term – around staffing, academisation, etc.?
  • Can we anticipate that some of these decisions might challenge our ability to remain principled?
  • How might we prepare for these decisions without currently knowing their detail?

Resources for Modern Governor subscribers

Boards whose school or academy subscribes to Modern Governor – either directly or through their multi-academy trust or local authority –  can refresh themselves on the Nolan principles through the Introduction to governance Module 1 and Introduction to governance Module 2 mobile friendly e-learning modules. Anyone can trial 5 of the mobile-friendly modules through our free 30-day trial or get in touch to get a subscription rate for your school, academy or MAT.


Image credit: The fresh and the ancient by Joey Kyber on Unsplash.


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