Team-talk with an eye for goal

One of my primary-school memories is of lining up in the games lesson to be picked for one football team or the other. Two stars stood at the front, twin apples of the teacher's eye. They shared the available talent between them, starting with the best and working their way down to me and a few other misshapen, bespectacled, scrawny (or the opposite), buck-toothed also-rans. We weren't really "picked" at all.

There came a point at which the two teams just trotted off, leaving us to tag on at the end as we wished. We could all have joined the same team had we wanted, for neither captain felt that our presence registered in any way. And the fact that my mother had rigged me out in glaringly brand-new, top-grade football boots only made things worse.

Much later in life, though, I realised that what was going on constituted an object lesson in how to put together an effective team of people. Only one criterion was in operation: being good at the basic ball skills of soccer. No interview, no aptitude test. The judgment was based entirely on first-hand observation over time.

Neither was there any question of "Will this person fit in with the others?" or "Can lack of ability be balanced by enthusiasm and eagerness to learn?" Not even friendship counted. I know, because I was a firm friend of one of the regular choosers, and in that pitiless ritual our relationship meant nothing at all.

Of course, once the team was in action, rifts and arguments and prima-donna tantrums broke out. But always the clarity and urgency of the prime objective soon damped them down. Maybe the lesson really is that straightforward - that if you want school improvement, you forget all the stuff about compatibility and potential, level of paper qualification, place in the hierarchy, and just choose people who are known to have a robust and verifiable history of excellence in the classroom.

Any emerging problems - clumsiness in personal relationships, lack of experience in running a department, halitosis - should lie well within the capabilities of a good senior leadership team. A bit extreme, I suppose.

But it's still true that it's too easy, when we're recruiting staff or putting together working teams in school, to be distracted from the importance of the core business of teaching and learning.

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