Pitching to move up a league

21st March 2008 at 00:00
Emulating Dutch footballers could help schools in less affluent areas to tackle low aspirations. Henry Hepburn reports

The links between one of the most thrilling teams in football history and education in North Ayrshire are not immediately obvious.

The Netherlands' 1974 World Cup squad, with their fashionably long hair and jet-set lifestyle, were a far cry from the Brylcreamed working-class footballer of popular imagination.

They revolutionised the sport with "total football", which meant players threw off the shackles of designated positions and excelled in all areas of the pitch, creating a style of remarkable fluidity.

But it was their incomparable versatility - more than the playboy image - that North Ayrshire Council's education director had in mind when she held up Johan Cruyff et al as models to aspire to.

"They epitomised what good management and leadership are about," Carol Kirk told a gathering consisting mainly of North Ayrshire headteachers and quality improvement officers.

"They stopped playing to their position and started looking across the pitch to what was needing done, rather than saying, 'This is my role and I'm sticking to it'."

Ms Kirk said the Dutch also had a "refreshing lack of hierarchy", shown in their allocation of shirt numbers according to alphabetical order, rather than the positions on the pitch traditionally associated with each number.

"They played as a team," she said. "They were not built on individual strengths."

Ms Kirk, whose mother is Dutch, emphasised that, despite its population being much smaller than rivals such as Brazil and Italy, Holland's national side had performed at a consistently high level - 1974 was not a one-off.

"Their players are bristling with attitude," she said. "It isn't necessarily the top talent but attitude that has taken them through."

She drew a parallel between the Netherlands' ability to match traditional footballing super-powers and North Ayrshire, where pressures such as poverty mean it is not on a level playing field with more affluent local authorities.

"No matter how brilliant some individual establishments are, we are never going to be East Renfrewshire," she said. "However, we can punch above our weight."

She said North Ayrshire staff should show greater trust in others, look beyond their traditional duties, embrace collegiality - pointing to the success of Learning and Teaching Scotland's Heads Together website - and ask how they could share their problems.

Speaking to The TESS after her presentation at the leadership conference, run by North Ayrshire educational services, Ms Kirk said: "The main message is that we have an area of significant social problems - not in all parts, but we have a large number of data significantly in the bottom 10 to 15 per cent - and that does have an impact on aspirations, but we want to mobilise everybody to raise those aspirations.

"Holland is not Brazil, France or Italy, but it does amazingly well - that's something that local authorities like ours could be doing."

Ms Kirk added that a book about Dutch football, Brilliant Orange by David Winner, was one of the best she had read on leadership.

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