What Premier League coaches can teach school leaders

Time spent checking out a Premier League football coaching course gave Alex Battison a glimpse of how school leaders could benefit from working with professionals outside their own field
29th November 2019, 12:05am
Leadership: What School Leaders Can Learn From Premier League Football Coaching Courses
Alex Battison


What Premier League coaches can teach school leaders


Considering the high turnover of Premier League football managers - the average tenure is about two years - you would think school leaders would do well to steer clear of any advice from that particular sector. However, I have found that there is much we can learn about leadership from the most lucrative football league in the world.

Having worked in three schools over the past 15 years (as well as having the pleasure of being involved with several others through a teaching alliance), I've long been interested in how the education sector can get better at supporting its leaders so that the privilege of being in a position of service is appropriately resourced and supported.

In exploring ways to develop my leadership skills, I crossed paths with the Premier League. In the past few years, the organisation has created several courses to prepare future coaches and leaders as architects of compassionate, high-performing environments, where elite performance comes as a result of the processes and people in place.

It struck me that the insights from such contexts could be useful in the move towards more effective leadership in schools.

Broader horizons

So, how do they build these expert leaders?

Each programme is designed around the needs of the individual candidate, which are mostly established via self-reflection, online profiling and a "professional 360˚" (where opinions from a variety of stakeholders around the coach are gathered, and they advise on the different performance criteria needed for the role).

Each coach is then provided with individualised support and mentoring in addition to a core curriculum in coaching, sport science and medicine, leadership and management.

The Premier League connects each candidate on the course with individuals who will bring a different perspective on the role (forming what is known as a "coaching cell").

The belief behind this ethic is that engaging with difference broadens horizons; it gets learners out of their comfort zones and challenges thinking by introducing knowledge and opinion from similar learning and performance environments, but in different contexts.

As an example of the latter, I could be discussing, say, the leadership of pastoral care and safeguarding in a football club and, in doing so, reflect on best practice in schools to enrich that conversation.

The basic premise is that individuals grow when exposed to knowledgeable difference alongside experts from their own field.

How often, as school leaders, are we exposed to such influences and how often do we try to create this type of community? Probably not enough.

However, it's an idea that's already taking hold in some parts of education. In the US, Stanford University, as part of its Stanford 2025 project, has considered the concept of a cell around the learner for increased development and challenge.

Each cell includes an "academic inspirer" (helping the student to learn more about a particular discipline), an "industry professional" (enabling links between learning and experiential pursuits), a "close confidante" (there to listen to worries and challenges), a "student mentor" (someone further along in their educational journey at the university) and a "wild card" (someone outside of the student's realm of interest or experience who would be judged to add value to the individual's life experience.

It would be interesting to see what similar models might look like for staff and students in our schools.

Our own journey

At Lord Wandsworth College, where I work, we have begun our own journey along these lines. For example, we have recruited the services of an individual who used to command forces in the British Army and have also teamed up with a former international sports coach.

Teaching staff can choose to work with these advisers to develop their leadership skills, in addition to having the support of their line manager.

As a result, staff have taken the opportunity to talk through their leadership challenges and gain insights into different and diverse fields of practice.

Although the thought of working with individuals who are not experienced in the leadership of a primary or secondary school environment could be viewed as limiting, the knowledge and experience of those general leadership approaches that are effective can be significant.

If more teachers and schools could seek to organise greater support for leaders along these lines, then I have no doubt that they - and, indeed, the whole school community - would benefit.

Alex Battison is senior deputy head and designated safeguarding lead at Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire

This article originally appeared in the 29 November 2019 issue under the headline "Different sphere, same goal"

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