The whole character of an institution is shaped by its leaders’ ethics, writes Dame Ruth Silver

Leadership and mental health are subjects close to my heart and involve questions of trust, openness, civic responsibility and ethical engagement in further education.

The issue is of current concern. In recent years, FE staff have been pushed towards a kind of economic instrumentalism, chivvied by an often bruising accountability system and a culture of constant reform which has seen central demands increase while budgets decline.

Across the education system, but particularly in schools, we have seen emerge a culture of high-stakes testing, punitive inspection and booming bureaucracy. The prevailing sense of uncertainty engendered by decades of reform is compounded by the recurrent need to merge and restructure, which is tough on staff and managers, and can leave a legacy of mistrust.

The result is a learning environment which is often inimical to thoughtful, ethical, human-centred leadership, where staff feel stressed, overworked and under pressure, and where learners lack agency in their learning.

The toll on the mental health of staff and students should be at the forefront of the sector’s thinking

The toll on the mental health of staff and students should be at the forefront of the sector’s thinking; they need to prevent pressures from being passed on to teachers and learners, and foster a culture where they remain focused on teaching and learning. We need to remember that education is an ethical practice, and not just an economic transaction.

The FETL-supported project, ‘Ethics and leadership in further education’, conducted by the University of Hull, has uncovered numerous examples of sector leaders striving to do the right thing. For many of the leaders interviewed, ethical leadership means understanding the teaching environment in their institutions, the needs of students and the issues faced by staff.

I think this is right, but it is also important that leaders consider their own mental health and take steps to ensure they understand what drives their own behaviour. This emerged from another FETL-funded project, carried out by specialists in organisational development, ‘Working well’. Leading can be a lonely business, and judgements about leadership can be unforgiving.

It is easy to forget that leaders are people too, subject to the same desires, drives and hopes as everyone else. Healthy organisations need healthy leaders, mindful of their role and relationships, and capable of cultivating their own inner worlds while remembering those of others.

This, to me, takes us to the heart of what makes for a healthy, flourishing place of work and learning. Staff need the chance to shape and lead their work, and learners need a sense of ownership and agency over their own learning. Understanding and having respect for the interiority of others is crucial. The faster the world around spins us, the more beholden it is to leaders to care for the relationships that comprise their institution.

It is easy to forget that leaders are people too

Ethical leadership is about listening, about loyalty to the primary tasks of teaching and learning, and about building better relationships with staff and students. That should be felt in everything that goes on in a college or training provider. The health of a workplace and the wellbeing of the people who comprise it is a whole-organisation issue, but it is leaders who set and carry the tone and it should be a consideration in everything they do. It is essential that they walk like a human, mindful of their role and relationships, attending to their own inner world and its impact on others, while remembering those of others.

Good leaders model the kind of behaviour that they would hope to see in a cooperative, trusting, democratic and humane place of work and learning, one which reflects education’s strong, formative role in creating and sustaining a fair, just and democratic society in which the health and goodness of people can manifest themselves.

Dame Ruth Silver is contributing to a webinar series on mental health in the FE workplace, organised by the Mental Health in Further Education Network and running throughout October.

Dame Ruth Silver is president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership