What is moral purpose and where does it come from?

I have pondered this question a lot over the years. When I talk to people about why I do what I do, I am often told that I am passionate. My passion, I think, stems from my mission in life, my moral purpose. I think, my moral purpose has its origins in a sense of injustice with the status quo and in no small part to my upbringing. My family history and my childhood are littered with stories of doing the right thing, even if it results in personal detriment and hardship. These stories, their messages, teachings are deeply ingrained in me. Three in particular stand out:

My maternal grandfather, born in the late nineteenth century, spent much of his life sailing around the world on ocean liners working in the kitchens. His companions, who became his friends & family during the 6 months at a time at sea, were men from what is now Azad Kashmir. He was seen as trustworthy and his friends would entrust their valuables to him, possibly to ensure that they saved enough of their income to take home to their families. Disaster struck on one of these voyages and the ship sank. My grandfather survived, some of his friends didn’t.

Over next few years, he tracked down the families of each of his companions for whom he had served as banker and trustee. The families often didn’t know he existed or indeed that he had been keeping their bread winner’s earnings safe. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to pay back every rupee that had been entrusted to him and had gone down with his friends.

My grandfather came from a farming family where hunger and privation were always a poor harvest or two away. The money that he brought home supported a large extended family. He lived however, by a strict moral code that was about doing the right thing. He knew that many of the families he tracked down were completely reliant on the income of the man they had lost. He felt a responsibility for their families and it was never an option for him not to give them the money that had been lost.

The second example is from my childhood. When I was 7, my father was made redundant from the Austin Motor-works having worked there for 25 years. A few years later, he decided to sell our family home and move to a cheaper property. Suffice to say, money wasn’t plentiful and we were a large family. Anyway, an offer was made and accepted. A week later he was made another offer which was significantly higher than the one accepted. Given our situation, he would have been forgiven for pulling out of the original agreement and accepting a lot more money. Even though the buyer was struggling to raise the money needed for a deposit, it was never an option to pull out of the deal. As far as he was concerned, he’d given his word.

The third story involves my eldest brother. When he was about 8 years old, he injured himself on the way to school. This was rural Kashmir in the late 1960s, he was bare footed and trod on a great big thorn. My mum tore up her head scarf & bound the wound and then carried him to the school. The wound was still bleeding freely when she arrived and the teacher asked why she’d brought her child in. Her response was that she didn’t want him to think that it was ever ok to miss school.

These stories, particularly the first one are, on a personal level, hugely emotive. I was choking up whilst tapping the words about my grandfather into my phone. I have to compose myself every time I tell the story because if I don’t, my voice will start to crack. The relevance here is that my grandfather and my parents were people with a very clear sense of doing the right thing.

In education, there are many of us who are driven to ensure that those forced to struggle through their poverty stricken childhoods receive an education that leads to real social mobility. I suspect that this is often driven by a burning anger and sense of injustice that some in our society can afford the best education whilst others have to make do with whatever the postcode lottery throws out. This sense of injustice is often compounded when poorer kids end up in struggling schools. There is no meritocracy, there is only the disproportionately negative impact of poor teaching on the ‘have nots’ perpetuating a cycle of struggle and misery. The moral imperative for many of us is to strive every single day to change this. To make our schools the platform for all children but especially the disadvantaged for a better life than the one their parents had and that they find themselves in.

I write this as 6 families across 2 of our schools have been made homeless. Their emergency accommodation is miles away from their own neighbourhoods, all have needed the assistance of food banks and are simply too far from school to attend. Lives turned upside down, the basic human right of education temporarily revoked by a society that appears to be creaking at the seams and spitting out the neediest as the richest seek even better ways to avoid paying their dues.

These are families who have roots in our community, children who have attended our schools from the start with established relationship. Who knows where they will end up to start again? If they are unable to come back to us, the hope is that the children end up in a school that is unapologetically relentless in its pursuit to transform their lives through education. To improve their chance of a better life so that homelessness and poverty are things they can protect their children from. Schools where moral purpose is the beating heart of the organisation and where staff gladly give the discretionary effort that will make the difference.

I can think of many teachers throughout my life who cared deeply about my future. I don’t know where their moral purpose came from, whether it was from their experiences as children or their sense of injustice. It may simply have been driven by the view that everyone deserves a decent education and it’s up to the individual to make the most of it. Education has transformed my life, broadened my horizons and ensured that I can give my own children the best possible start in life. This is the moral purpose that must drive our education system. As Nelson Mandela famously said:

 ’EDUCATION IS THE MOST POWERFUL WEAPON WHICH YOU CAN USE TO CHANGE THE WORLD.”

I wonder what difference it would have made if he had switched the word ‘weapon’ to ‘compass’? For me, weapons are often used to enforce some form of status-quo, political power, or self-gain. A compass on the other-hand, on its own is not powerful like a weapon but the course that it can set us all on far exceeds the impact of any weapon. Education must and should set the direction of travel for every human-being so that our success in life is not dependent upon the families we are born in to, the schools we attend, the cities we live in and the countries that we come from. This is my dream anyway. What’s yours?

Sajid Gulzar

CEO and Executive Headteacher

Prince Albert Community Trust (PACT)