How ‘honest’ are you and your school?

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What role does honesty play in the character and ethos of your school? Matt Bawden discusses why honesty should drive everything we do as staff and how this can inspire students and parents too

Within the “modern school”, staff need to be masters of all things. Yet surely this is often an unreachable ambition, one we strive for but seldom attain.

Wise leaders prioritise the most important things, placing them in their improvement plans. Wise staff set clear performance management goals based around these plans, shaped by their departmental priorities. Wise students follow suit, setting concise targets guided by teachers and tutors. Wise parents help offspring in ways informed by the staff. To be wise takes honesty, but it is the best policy.

To possess honesty we need to be truthful, possess integrity, sincerity and be open. Honesty is a disposition, a way of laying bare all the elements needed to grow. In schools, as in life, we improve the more we practise. This inspires us to act the same way again and again, however we feel and whatever the situation.

It is my view that when honesty becomes a habit we function so much better.

A report by the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues, entitled The Good Teacher, identifies fairness, creativity, love of learning, humour, perseverance, and leadership as the most desirable qualities for a teacher to possess. When describing themselves, teachers reassuringly tended to replace perseverance and leadership with honesty and kindness. It takes honest people to keep the school functioning, inspiring success, and maintaining high standards.

Inspiring honesty in our leadership

It is rare to come across a school without a formal plan, but they do exist. Occasionally we find schools where it is all plan, and no action. But normally there’s a plan, often with three to five priorities.

They might take traditional forms – i.e. Ofsted headings, linking easily to self-evaluation forms, or perhaps being driven by governors, staff, recent inspections etc to help identify unique setting-specific goals.

Being truthful here is essential, but by the right amount. There is no need to place everything on the table. Instead we use integrity to identify the right things to be truthful about, those that drive up or maintain standards. One school frankly explains that one priority is to mitigate the effects of changes to school funding. This openness is another aspect of honesty, valuable and probably sincere. Yet, bringing what might be political opinion into a school plan can easily be too open, too truthful, and therefore too honest. An honest improvement plan enables everyone to work openly and truthfully, bringing about the best education possible in the circumstance.

One of the drivers for a great plan may be data. The old adage that statistics are a variant of lies, or damn lies, is often true in business, and our schools are more and more frequently seen as businesses.

Some “businesses” massage data, others pick courses for students to boost Progress 8 scores. But honestly, our data is a tool for us to improve ourselves. None of us will be strangers to the sense of dread we feel opening our results on a results day. I remember thinking I’d never feel that way again when I opened my last results envelope in a Cornish sports hall and prayed I had the grades to go to university.

Years later, as a teacher, I relive this feeling twice a year every year. Then I sit down and compile my report for my line manager. What have I done well? What went wrong? Who were the angels/demons in my class? In hindsight what would I do better? If I look at this data openly, truthfully, with integrity, then my honesty will mean my next batch will be fewer demons and more angels.

If everyone approaches data with the same honesty we all win, if not then we lose. After all, do senior leaders actually study behavioural data and respond with better interventions, do governors look at data reports and feel the school prepared them for everything they see?

My school provides our governors with a clear dashboard of data and exception reports. I would be concerned if anything they read or hear surprises them; we are all in this together.

Inspiring honesty in our staff

Great targets offer chances to achieve great things. Sometimes they are not the ones we thought, but we still achieve something. How do we encourage staff to pick goals that actually help them improve? When we sit down to identify two or three targets for the coming year, are we honest with ourselves, do we feel we can be honest with our line managers?

Creating an environment where everyone is open will mean we plan to succeed and not just tick boxes. We no longer set something we know we can attain simply to access our next pay increment.

One educational establishment sets all their performance management in one room, as one group, at the same time. They all discuss the needs, they share their concerns, and build targets reflecting these across all areas/departments. Each person’s success relies on another’s.

Each goal is founded on the data and evidence that several people agree matters. I’m not suggesting we all do this, but we could consider the levels of trust, truthfulness and sincerity needed for us to try it, and then think about how we can grow this for ourselves. Even though my workplace does not do this I would love to believe the atmosphere is such that we could.

The modern school is an incredibly stressful place. Minimising stress takes honesty, both with yourself and with others. As a school leader I aim to be open about my stress with my colleagues. However, if I am too truthful, too open, then my leadership can become difficult or even impossible. This balance is important for us all. It is as much about what we put across about stress, our stress, as how we do it. Taking an honest approach can reduce absence and raise morale.

Inspiring honesty in students and parents

Students reflect the character we model. They develop it implicitly by behaving as we do, and explicitly by following our lead.

When we sit with them to plan targets they are as tempted as us to set easy things. They like to be successful in much the same way we do. They try to please, because they like to feel good.

An honest approach changes the rules. When students see we are sincere about helping them improve they listen. When they know we are being open with them about what it takes to improve they connect, and when we are truthful with them they are truthful with us.

We can be too truthful, just as we can be too open. There needs to be a happy medium, there is no sense in saying that the student can achieve the world, or that failure won’t hurt.

Parents share these concerns, and like us, and our students, they may need the chance to practise honesty and develop it knowing they are following a similar approach to the school; meaningful communication between both is essential.

Whatever the environment, whoever is involved, it takes time to build honesty. Yet the rewards are there for us all.

  • Matt Bawden is an assistant headteacher at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne and editor of the Association for Character Education eJournal Character Matters. He is a former teacher-in-residence with the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues. Follow @ourschoolday. To read his previous articles and SecEd’s other best practice relating to character, visit

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