Finding a game plan
There are lessons that school leaders can take from Sven Goran Eriksson's World Cup performance over the summer - such as having a clear strategy and focusing on teamwork.
I used to watch football matches - Bristol City in the Third Division South, in the days when the first division really was the first division. More than 40 years later I can still remember some of the players - John Atyeo at inside right and Mike Thresher at left back. Mike came to school and coached us, with, it has to be said, a conspicuous lack of success in my case.
In June I tried hard to watch some of the World Cup matches, but there always seemed to be something more interesting to do so I only ever caught parts of matches, and pretty poor they were too.
I actually like football. I just don't like modern professional football. I don't like the hype. I don't like the cheating. And I don't like the fact that people are paid up to £100,000 per week when school and college leaders are paid a lot less than that per year for doing a much more important job, and doing it better.
There are more parallels with education and football than you might think. Some of the players'/students' behaviour is poor, some go off injured, some get sent off, spectators/parents rush on to the pitch/school to complain. So comparisons are not as far-fetched as you might think, especially in leadership.
When Sven Goran Eriksson was appointed as England manager, I spoke approvingly of his leadership style at our 2002 annual conference:
There is no single way to be an effective school leader, any more than there is one way to be a successful England football manager. Sven Goran Eriksson has broken the mould of our national football managers and, with the same resources available to him, has been conspicuously more successful than his recent predecessors. He is - I have read from those who work with him - calm, authoritative, determined, dignified, sensitive, intelligent and a bit mysterious. He is a team man. He is loyal to his players and treats them with respect. He has restored their self-belief. He knows what he wants to achieve and his players are pursuing the same aims (or goals, I suppose you might say). Those are all pretty good qualities for school leadership too.
Four years later, his leadership has produced a team that plays dull football, does not score goals (or even penalties) and which is lacking in teamwork. I am willing to acknowledge that it may be very difficult to weld 11 very highly paid individuals into a team, especially when their pay does not depend on their performance for England.
No strategy, no results
But, with four years to prepare (longer than between Ofsted inspections), there was no overall strategy and the leader has to take responsibility for that. Eriksson was still experimenting with the team formation during the World Cup itself. Calmness, authority, determination, dignity and the rest are of little use unless there is a clear strategy.
In my 2002 annual conference speech, I also said how fortunate I had been to work under a head who had the qualities that Eriksson showed in his early years with England:
He was the best head I ever worked for, but, oddly enough, the pupils didn't know him at all. If they ever caught sight of him, they were known to mistake him for the caretaker. He broke most of the rules of school leadership, but his values were clear, and he inspired and, above all, empowered his staff to translate those values into the reality of every pupil's experience.
His aim and strategy were very clear. The aim was, quite simply, to make a difference to young people's lives. The strategy was to empower the staff to teach well and to offer a wide range of opportunities for the young people to achieve success.
I reflected on this at the opening day of this year's training course for Teach First, the excellent scheme that brings into London schools, for at least two years, highly qualified graduates who would not otherwise enter teaching. The Teach First strapline is 'make a difference', and this is undoubtedly the major motivating factor for these talented people.
I reflected on this again at the excellent ASCL conference for young leaders. Yasmin Bevan, a very successful head in Luton, had chosen to work in deprived areas during her career because that was where she felt that she could best make a difference, she told the audience of young middle and senior leaders.
The second speaker, Robert Hill, author of the influential ASCL publication Leadership that Lasts, said that the motivation for being a leader is because you want to change things, because you want to make a difference.
That is why so many ASCL members came into teaching in the first place and why they have moved into leadership. The responsibility is wider, the accountability is much stronger, the vulnerability is greater, but so are the opportunities to make a difference.
There are few, if any, other jobs where you can have an idea one evening and, the next day, start to put it into practice to make a difference to the lives of so many young people. In spite of all the difficulties, that is what makes school and college leadership such a great job.
The problem is not the aim, but the strategy when there are so many new initiatives to implement. The autumn term of 2006 may not look quite as bad as the prospect a year ago of implementing TLRs and completing the SEF simultaneously in what turned out to be the busiest term ever experienced by most ASCL members.
In September 2006 there is no shortage of new initiatives. The new relationship with schools has produced the single conversation with a school improvement partner, going nationwide this term after a two-year pilot on which ASCL members reported favourably.
Self-evaluation continues to need developing in many places, with the SEF still requiring refinement in order to give the best up-to-date picture of progress. Numerous initiatives on quality in the college sector continue to create an acronymic jungle.
Mathematics and English have to be reviewed in the wake of the change in the performance tables. The key stage 3 curriculum needs to be reviewed in preparation for the national review to be published early next year. The new performance management scheme must be introduced. Extended schools arrangements are to be planned.
Partnership working must be developed with other schools and colleges in preparation not only for the shared responsibilities for hard-to-teach students, but also for the 14 to 19 plans that will have to be put in place in the future. There are likely to be new regulations about reporting to parents. School food has to be healthy.
Number one priority
Important as all these things are - and schools will be at different stages with all of them - none would be at the top of my list of priorities. As so often when there are many different matters on the agenda, it is opportune to reinforce to all staff the primacy of teaching and learning and the need to concentrate on improving the quality of teaching and the depth of learning.
This may be under the umbrella of personalising learning, assessment for learning,
developing learning skills or another internally-generated strategy, but it cannot be moved from its rightful place at the head of the reform queue.
My second priority - essential if the first priority is to be implemented successfully - is to develop leadership capacity.
The senior leadership team has to be fit for purpose and, if that purpose includes responding to the increasingly broad range of demands placed on schools and colleges, a review of the composition of the team may be needed to see whether more senior support staff, such as a head of extended services, should be added.
The capacity of leadership at the middle level will also need to be examined in the light of increasing demands, such as the new performance management arrangements, which require new skills.
The teams that do best in football are those that exhibit the clearest strategy, the best leadership and the most up-to-date skills. Maybe football isn't such a bad example after all.
By John Dunford, ASCL General Secretary
© 2013 Association of School and College Leaders