Operating in a responsible, professional and ethically sound manner underpins the whole further education sector. Despite the current pressure educators and learners are under, this is as important now as it has ever been. Elizabeth Holmes explains.
When an event such as a global pandemic crashes through our usual mode of operating, it means educators have to adapt, and fast. The need to get both themselves and their learners up to speed with remote working, as well as juggling the additional demands Covid-19 placed on both professional and personal lives, meant those working in the further education (FE) sector have found themselves under more pressure than ever over the past 15 months.
The profession has responded admirably, and having strong processes, policies, procedures and organisational culture has helped ensure that providers have been able to maintain standards and high levels of professionalism, despite the unforeseen circumstances.
Barnsley College is one such example. “We have an extensive policy framework that is supported through the relevant procedures and systems, and its purpose is to safeguard and support as well as remind people in some cases what the expected standards are,” says Yiannis Koursis, principal and CEO. “The key point around these policies is that they must be fully aligned with the organisation’s purpose. If strategic alignment is not present or is only partially present, then it will be difficult to safeguard against not meeting expected standards due to lack of clarity or confusion.”
Perhaps the question isn’t about being tempted to cut corners, but how we can promote these creative practices
That’s not to say there aren’t risks associated with the unprecedented circumstances the education sector has found itself working in, however. Dr Jim Baxter, professional ethics consultancy team leader at the Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre, University of Leeds, warns there is potential for standards and behaviours to slip as a result of stress or time pressure. “First, there might be an issue with the quality of ethical decision-making,” he says. “Making good ethical decisions requires taking a step back from the immediate problem, seeing it in a broader context, discussing with colleagues and teasing out the relevant facts and values. All of this can be very difficult to do if the decision has to be made very quickly.
“Secondly, there can be a temptation to let things which you know are not optimal slip, in order to meet deadlines, when correcting the problem would require significant additional work. This is perhaps a particularly acute problem in educational settings where many deadlines are fixed and immutable. The question then becomes whether it is fair to expect educators to work long hours to put things right.”
Teresa Carroll, who leads on the Education and Training Foundation’s (ETF) offer on offender learning, special educational needs and disabilities and mental health, feels that although staff are under pressure, they have stepped up admirably to the challenge. “Many are now delivering learning much more creatively by taking time to understand the reality of their learners’ lives and working together to find solutions,” she says.
In a world of rapid change, she believes there is much to be positive about. “Only this morning,” Carroll says, “I was listening to teachers talking about how best to present ideas to learners; delivering learning packs where access to technology isn’t available and adapting teaching to be relevant to the learners’ lives. So perhaps the question isn’t about being tempted to cut corners, but how we can promote these creative practices. There are so many communities of practice across the FE sector, and this is just one way that sharing ideas can happen.”
Operating within the guiding principles of your organisation is the core of operating ethically. For Koursis, this means “having an employee handbook, staff code of conduct, and teaching and learning standards and expectations that are reflective and representative of the organisation’s purpose and mission”. This is about complying with the rules and expectations of the organisation, including safeguarding, health and safety, and so on.
The lens of trust is a useful tool to achieve this, suggests Baxter. “The imbalance of knowledge and power between educator and learner means that trust is a central, unavoidable element of the relationship, and the responsibility is on the educator to ensure that trust is earned,” he says.
For Carroll, this also embraces the promotion of social justice in the FE sector and beyond. “We are well placed to promote social justice within society, working with learners to achieve their aspirations and become the people they want to be,” she says. “Our learners are drawn from all demographics of society and because of that many will be experiencing, or living in families experiencing, social and economic deprivation alongside emotional and mental health concerns.
“The shift to learning online has revealed the disparity within our society in terms of having access to technology, broadband, a quiet place to study within the home and financial pressures due to being unable to work. Operating ethically and professionally, it is even more important that educators are aware of the diversity of experience within their learner cohorts.”
Dr Maggie Gregson, professor of vocational education and director of the Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training at the University of Sunderland (SUNCETT):
What do we mean by teachers operating ethically? There is a difference between ethics and morals. Ethics lean towards decisions based on the individual character and qualities of the teacher, their subjective understanding of right and wrong, and the judgements they make in context about their learners based on their understanding of the needs of individuals as well as those of the group.
On the other hand, morals tend to suggest more widely shared societal norms about what people ought to do. The concept of professionalism can be construed as protectionist, even elitist. Other meanings of the term have more to do with adhering to the shared values of a practice.
In these demanding times, experienced teachers may be more able to make good practical judgements in complex and difficult situations. Newer teachers with less experience may need some assistance or mentoring.
We all have a role professionally in supporting and learning from one another to achieve the best outcomes for learners. The more complex and difficult things get, the more we will need to learn from shared experience and collaboration to make educationally sound judgements in the interests of our learners, at the right time and for the right reasons.
The Professional Standards for Teachers and Trainers were developed by the ETF in 2014 and are designed to enable teachers and trainers to identify areas for their own professional development. They are also a national reference point, so organisations have a focus for supporting the development of their staff.
These standards are based around the core pillars of professional values and attributes, professional knowledge and understanding, and professional skills. The differentiated structure to the Professional Standards provides a common language for discussing the career progression and development of teachers, combined with a self-assessment tool which provides an efficient way of understanding current performance against the Professional Standards. Once these areas for development have been established, teachers and trainers can use the Professional Standards research tool to identify appropriate professional development, associated with each standard.
Andrew Dowell, Head of Professional Status and Standards at the ETF, explains that while the Professional Standards have not changed, those working in the sector should take the opportunity to regularly re-assess themselves against them. “The Professional Standards self-assessment tool is a great way of doing this, by reflecting on your teaching practice and identifying areas of strength and areas for development,” he says.
The Society for Education and Training (SET) Code of Professional Practice, meanwhile, sets out the professional behaviour and conduct that is expected of SET members. Combined with the Professional Standards, these provide a clear focus for remaining on track despite the immense pressures we find ourselves dealing with.
Educators also have a duty to factor ethics and professionalism into their own teaching. Baxter explains that this is about thinking in terms of fostering ethical competence. “One element of ethical competence is ethical reasoning skills and judgement,” he says. “Another element is the ability to take others’ perspective. There is a lot educators can do here.
Both of these elements of ethical competence are more important than ever in a context in which so much of the public conversation takes place on social media, which can tend to encourage condemnation over constructive debate, and playing to one’s own ‘tribe’ over understanding where others may be coming from.”
Ultimately, this is about keeping learners at the centre of all that we do as teachers. As Koursis explains: “The development of the skills and behaviours of our learners not only focuses on them being job-ready when they leave college, but also in developing them and imbuing in them an increased ethical behaviour that ultimately will shape future behaviours in workplaces and wider society.”
Operating ethically means we act with our personal values and professional standards at the core of everything we do. We treat learners and staff with respect, we treat people fairly, and we work within the internal and awarding body guidelines for quality.
Professionalism means remaining objective, especially in challenging situations. We consider our actions to ensure we respond professionally in any given situation. Encouraging staff to reflect on, and adjust, their practice is important.
Thinking about my own team, and the wider college, our culture is one of high standards leading to excellence. Underpinning that, to make it actions and not words, are the processes we have in place that ensure staff don’t face pressure to cut corners.
If standards or behaviours do slip as a result of pressure to meet deadlines, an organisation has to look at how secure the underpinning processes are and adjust them.
You want your team to share those core values of behaviour and professionalism, and before that can become the culture, it has to be made explicit. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what we don’t do.
Educators lead by example, so their role is vital. They can model ethical practice and professionalism in every interaction they have, and they can make this explicit – verbalising their behaviour. We deliberately teach our learners about professionalism, and invite them to agree the values we hold, at classroom and college level. I want my learners to be proud of their college and themselves, and that comes, in part, from teaching them to know what we stand for.
Elizabeth Holmes is a freelance journalist specialising in the education sector.