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Of Ethics and Struggle

Do we have a system of moral principles that govern our business actions in the world that we call international schools? How are individuals in our sector behaving, when it comes to ‘making deals’ to open/create new schools around the world, as part of the wave that appears to be remarkable growth in international schools? In the quest for income, whether those funds are destined for endowment pots or to support bursaries and scholarships in a ‘home campus’ location, have we struggled sufficiently and openly with the ethics of it all? And what are the consequences of an insufficient struggle?

What I struggle with is the identification of a moral map in our industry. But might we apply some ethical rules and principles that would help us to take a more measured view, provide a moral map, a framework that we could use to navigate our way through issues that arise inevitably as a result of the intersection of cultures, values, and, obviously, money? This is not a binary issue of for-profit versus not-for-profit; either corporate entity can (and should) grapple with ethics. Let us look at but two examples that help to illustrate what I’m on about.

Scenario #1

A construction company that is building a development must consider the schooling of the children whose parents will locate themselves in that community. The appropriate people ponder the size of the plot of land, which architect to use, how many students (and people, for that matter) can fit inside the space. As importantly, they contemplate the investment needed to bring the school into being, from outfitting classrooms with all the latest kit to cookers in the kitchen (if they choose to have one) to lockers to auditorium seating to sound-reducing panels in the band room, and so on. And let’s not forget the most valuable asset — the people! The eventual formula will be predicated on a ‘sweet spot’ of a specific number of students, providing for a certain size of classes in the first years of the school, building toward attaining that target number of students, at which point the operation of the school will be in the sweet spot. All the aforementioned is part of building and launching a school, and there is no ethical quandary that rears its head. Where we have to apply ethics, now, is in two respects: finance and governance (arguably, there are others, but these two top the list). From the financial perspective, are there investors involved in launching the school, and what are their expectations in terms of a return on their investment? From my end, I too often hear of (or see) unrealistic expectations in terms of ROI; if an investor wants their money back within five years, they’re in the wrong industry, if their goal is to do an outstanding job in education. Education is an industry with a low time-preference (i.e. long time horizon, patience is rewarded, benefits are seen over a lifetime); yet, to demand ‘money back’ from a high time-preference perspective is, it must be said, misaligned with the values of education, which include the long-term greater good of society. As for governance, one has to consider the governance structure — who plays in this special group, and what their reach (of power) comprises. Even organisations with excellently-written by-laws can fall prey to governance that is far too controlling of the leadership/management of the school. It is easy for a board of owners, in a for-profit scenario, to run the show behind the ostensible leader, just as it is easy for a majority board of parents, in a non-profit scenario, to bend the leadership/management to their short-term will. Ethics here require ongoing self-examination complemented by regular neutral-party examination by someone who specialises in organisational behaviour and ethics, not just an accreditation/inspection agency (though they too can surface issues, though it’s not their sole focus when visiting). Schools should plan/budget for and exercise this approach.

Scenario #2

In late December, TES ran a fascinating story on British schools overseas, under the by-line of “British values could land international school heads in prison, government warned.” Allow me to quote from TES: “Headteachers in British international schools overseas have warned that they could face imprisonment if they are forced to promote British values, including gay rights, as part of their lessons. Ministers are consulting on plans to hold schools accountable using the same measures as the government’s Independent School Standards, which require all institutions to “actively promote” British values. […] All schools will need to adhere to the standards in order to receive the coveted “British School Overseas” (BSO) kitemark.” The issue at hand has very real consequences for leaders of British schools abroad, obviously. At face value, this appears to be a political issue related to school inspection and the very notion of British identity; however, I would argue that the deeper issue to be acknowledged and addressed is that of normative ethics. As a sector (this notion of normative ethics is far bigger than British schools overseas alone), how we have gone about launching schools (i.e. the reasons why) has formed, by default, an operative set of normative ethics which we observe, and this set of normative ethics is multi-faceted (I won’t attempt a full description here). In this specific case of British schools overseas, they find themselves painted into a corner, with government now obfuscating the set of normative ethics followed heretofore. If government ministers insist on the promulgation of British values in order to have the “coveted BSO kitemark,” then, in the interests of safety and following the letter of the (host country) law, British schools overseas may find themselves forced to consider alternative inspection/accreditation. As a result, the inspection regime will enter a period of messiness, and what becomes of the stamp of British identity? “May you live in interesting times” goes the saying. Indeed, no one envies the interesting times for the British schools involved in this discussion right now. Yet this conversation, alongside many others that could be shared, would seem to underscore a need for those of us in international education to be engaged regularly in substantive discussions of ethics in our own industry. As such, we would create a greater network that could respond to those who are experiencing challenges related to ethical issues.

One has only to search news sources lightly to discover that, around the world, there are regular gatherings of investors and government officials interested in international education (however we wish to define that). After all, it appears to be a booming sector, and the number of school-aged children is increasing in a number of areas. Yet we must ask whether there is an ethical voice present at these meetings, espousing/promoting international education and simultaneously highlighting a system of ethics designed to protect the integrity of international schooling for all involved, from owners, governors, leaders, and teachers right through students and their families, as well as local communities and governments.

It is hard work, admittedly, but should we shy away from that challenge, choosing instead to practice a sort of benign neglect that, arguably, doesn’t result in benign consequences?

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