It’s not a game of two halves

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

Comparisons between school leadership and football are often drawn – and are rarely positive, says Geoff Barton

With the World Cup kicking off more or less as you read this, it seems like a good time to reflect on the extent to which footballing analogies have crept into the education lexicon.

And it may also be worth making the point that the world of education is nothing like the world of sport. It is not a game of two halves over 90 minutes with winners and losers. It is a long game played over many years with the objective of helping every child to achieve. Indeed, the use of football terminology when applied to education is rarely positive. As we shall see.

League tables

We all know about league tables. Even with the new, fairer measure of Progress 8 we know that schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils are likely to record lower scores than those in more affluent areas, regardless of the quality of teaching. Indeed, no performance measures are ever likely to provide an entirely level playing field.

So why is so much weight put upon them? Comparisons between schools are often invidious, and the application of floor targets runs the risk of creating a problem by stigmatising schools. Nobody would argue with the need to collect data about the performance of schools. But we surely need to move to a situation in which performance measures are kept in proportion as just one part of the bigger picture of a school.

And league tables do not apply only to schools but also to countries, most notably through international PISA tests. Again, they provide useful data, but they also have to be kept in perspective. They give a relatively narrow perspective of education. Our schools offer a much broader and richer education than any league table can capture.

Football manager syndrome

In a climate of extremely hard accountability it is perhaps not surprising that heads roll far too easily. A single set of poor results can mean the end of a career.

The consequences of this are devastating for the individual concerned. But they are also a serious problem for the education system.

Talented deputy headteachers may feel they are safer where they are. Leaders may be reluctant to take on a struggling school. And when a headteacher loses their job we also lose all that training and experience from the system.

We’re not asking for life tenure, but a more sensible approach which recognises that leadership in a complex environment has ups and downs and that the very best leaders are often forged through that experience.

Shifting goalposts

Okay, this is probably stretching the analogy a little far, but I’ll make the point anyway. Those posts have been moving up and down the goal line over the past few years with a rapidity that has been bewildering.

Reforms to qualifications, tests, curricula and performance tables have been generally accompanied by government pronouncements about improving rigour and raising standards. The effect on schools has been the requirement for mastery of an increasingly byzantine system, and heaps of extra workload in managing all the reforms. How much has this improved learning in the classroom? In fact, how much has it distracted from learning?


What all of the above perhaps suggests is that the spread of the language of sport into the world of education may be a product of the sense that competition in every sphere of private and public life is a good thing. But is that ethos appropriate for education?

The fragmentation of the school system over the past few years has inevitably pitched schools into a more competitive environment than existed in the past. Now we are trying to reconstruct greater collaboration through the growth of multi-academy trusts. That is a recognition that we can often achieve the best results for children by working together and supporting one another.

And finally...

We often talk about goals. They abound for our students and for our schools. And, of course, there is nothing wrong with aiming high. Indeed, we should have the very highest aspirations. But the problem with goals is that sometimes you miss the target.

I think a lot about those students who fall the wrong side on the C/D borderline, or the 3/4 borderline as we must now say. That particular cliff edge is very precipitous. What more should we be doing for them?

Which brings us back to my opening remarks – the most important goal we can have is surely for every child to leave school proud of their achievements: that’s our World Cup.

  • Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders.


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