A game plan for successful headship

In education, as in football, a strong leader is vital. Make sure you're on the ball
1st May 2015, 1:00am
Phil Whelan


A game plan for successful headship


Many young boys dream of being professional footballers and that was certainly the case for me. Luckily, I was able to live my dream and spent 13 years playing for Ipswich, Middlesbrough, Oxford and Southend. Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a sportsman, it couldn't last indefinitely. When I had an operation in January 2003 (the fifth procedure on the same knee), it was time to consider my options.

A chance encounter led me to a career in education. A mutual friend introduced me to a primary headteacher, who invited me to spend a week at his school, moving between classrooms and seeing learning in action.

It was a real eye-opener to discover the many different hats a teacher has to wear during the working week and I instantly knew this was the path I wanted to take. Little more than 12 months and a PGCE later, there I was, facing the first class that was mine to educate and guide for a whole school year.

After 10 years of teaching, I recently made the move to senior management and have become headteacher at Millfields Primary School and Nursery in Cheshire. From Day 1, I've tried to establish a leadership style that draws on all the positive aspects of management that I've picked up throughout my two careers. Many of the attributes that make a great football coach also make a great school leader.

Working as a team

Having a football team of talented individuals will ensure moments of brilliance that bring joy to onlookers. But a squad of players who work together collaboratively and are clear about their roles within the team will generally be more successful in the long term.

This also applies to schools. Staff who feel they all have a part to play and know exactly what that involves are far more likely to make a positive contribution. Sharing key goals and objectives and providing clear direction is part of a successful manager's job in any industry.

Creating a positive atmosphere

Most footballers say the times they most enjoy football coincide with being at top of their game. Are they playing well because they're enjoying it or are they enjoying it because they're playing well? The two go hand in hand. It's important to make the workplace a pleasurable place to be. You can do this in many ways, but it comes from the top, by being respectful, celebrating excellent performance, and being happy and enthusiastic.

The successful managers I played under were all well respected by their players. The most successful teachers are the ones who can find ways to develop relationships with members of their class. This creates a positive atmosphere, allowing children to feel happy and content.

Continual development

During my footballing career, players made the most progress when their managers encouraged them to continually look for new ways to improve, whether that was by working with teammates, observing top-class players in action or engaging in regular practice. The idea that professional development is expected is integral within clubs. That is why I am keen to ensure that my staff have access to a wide range of CPD opportunities at Millfields. Again, this can be achieved in a number of ways but having an ethos of continual development is a core value of mine.

Although football and education are poles apart in some regards, certain key leadership qualities are relevant in any profession. As such, I look forward to using all that I have learned from my football managers and headteachers and applying it in my own practice to make Millfields the very best place it can be for the children it serves.

Phil Whelan, pictured above, is headteacher of Millfields Primary School and Nursery in Nantwich, Cheshire

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