It’s often said that sport can teach you a lot about being a leader. The quote attributed to the Duke of Wellington that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” may be apocryphal. But James Toop, the chief executive of Ambition School Leadership, says that he learned about leadership from playing Eton fives.
Fives, Toop explains, is a “slightly bizarre sport”, “like squash with your hands”. Coaching the sport was the first time he realised that he “enjoyed helping other people grow and get better”. Above all, the sport taught him about “integrity”.
“One of the beauties of fives is that there’s no referee,” he says. The game relies on the players calling when their own shots are out (or “down”, in fives lingo).
Toop says that fives set him on a path to running Ambition, one of the biggest providers of school leadership-development training in the country. He thinks leadership has been neglected by the education system of late. Bringing it back to the fore, he believes, has the potential to both transform standards and fix the teacher-retention crisis.
Sitting in a classroom in St Mark’s Academy in Mitcham, south London, where he is chair of governors, there’s still something of the school sportsman in Toop. Clean-limbed and earnest, he seems to radiate an almost palpable wholesomeness.
He says that it was always likely he was going to end up doing something in education. “Everyone” in his family worked in the public sector, so there was a strong ethos of service from the start. The importance of education was further impressed on him by the experience of his maternal grandparents, who were Polish and came to Britain after the war. The fact that they were unable to finish their education meant that Toop never took his for granted.
Toop got into a grammar school in Orpington, south-west London, although it was a close-run thing. “I didn’t pass the test,” he says. “Some children didn’t want to go, and they lowered the pass mark. So I got in right at the end.”
The experience has left him with an ambivalence about selective education.
“I always felt so lucky to have gone there,” he says. “Would I be sitting here now had I not? I don’t think I would.”
Even so, he can’t avoid what the data tells him about selection: “Everything points to the fact that bringing back grammar schools would not improve social mobility.”
Asked what he thinks about the government’s watered-down plans to expand grammars via “annexes”, Toop says he “would not support grammar schools returning”.
It was at grammar school that Toop was introduced to fives. “In many ways, it kind of runs against everything that I stand for now because it’s one of the most elitist sports you can get,” he laughs. But he wasn’t put off by its upper-class connotations. Being “the state-school kid” playing against competitors from Eton, Harrow and Uppingham actually allowed him to take aim at overentitlement.
“I really rail against privilege and anybody feeling better than you just because they earn more money,” he says
“Fives was one way to get on a level playing field and beat some of those kids from a more privileged background.”
As our conversation progresses, it becomes clear that Toop was a sort of wunderkind in the world of fives. Although he’s at pains to point out it’s “a very small sport”, he won the school nationals three years running, became the youngest men’s Eton fives champion, and then crossed codes to Rugby fives, becoming the only person ever to win the men’s championship in both.
‘You’ve got to stick with it’
After studying modern foreign languages at Oxford, Toop enrolled with the first cohort of Teach First, teaching French at a school in New Addington in south London. He remembers it as a “really tough experience”. With the London Challenge school improvement programme still in its early stages, it was hard to find models of exceptional urban state schools, and the “big gains” that the capital would later see were not yet apparent. Teach First was itself an unproven concept that barely registered in the public consciousness.
“At that time, you would say ‘I’m doing Teach First’,” recalls Toop. “People would say ‘I’m sorry, what?’”
The first term was the hardest, but Toop coached himself through it. “I had the goal in my head of getting to Christmas,” he says. “In a sports match, if you’re getting barraged by your opponent, you have to think, ‘I’ve just got to stay on court and stick with it as long as I can.’” Things got better in the new year, and as Toop became more assured in his teaching, he played a more expansive role in the life of the school. He even introduced fives to his school, taking a group of students to play in the nationals.
After two years of Teach First, Toop became a management consultant because he “wanted to learn how things operated in the business sector”. But he quickly discovered that he lacked “purpose” in the role and found it “very hard to be motivated”. He had a lightbulb moment when he switched to do some work on executive development: “Having worked on a whole lot of strategies – which are often presentations that end up in someone’s drawer – I felt you could make a much bigger difference by working with the people.”
This in turn took him to Teaching Leaders – a venture launched by Ark to develop school middle leaders. Toop says he immediately saw its potential. Friends who had stayed on in teaching and reached middle leadership were finding it challenging, and from his own experience, he knew that the quality of the head of department often determined the “pockets of excellence” and “underperformance” in a school.
Toop eventually became chief executive of the charity and, in the last few years, has steered it through a merger with Future Leaders, which provided training for those aspiring to headship in challenging schools. To date, Ambition and its predecessor organisations have trained more than 5,000 leaders.
The obvious question to ask Toop – who hasn’t worked as a school middle or senior leader – is whether he’s the right person to run an organisation that trains these individuals. “It hasn’t proven to be a problem yet,” he replies. “I like to think I’ve got a lot of credibility with the school leaders who I work with.”
He points out that he’s been a chair of governors for six-and-a-half years across three schools. But he admits he “definitely couldn’t be a headteacher”, although he says he “could potentially be a multi-academy trust (MAT) CEO with the skill set I’ve got” (Ambition also provides training for MAT CEOs).
Toop believes that the education sector urgently needs to “reignite the debate about leadership”. While he welcomes the spotlight that Justine Greening cast on teacher professionalism during her time as education secretary, he thinks “we’ve lost that focus on leadership”. “It shouldn’t be about hero leadership – it should be about systems leadership, how leaders work together,” he insists.
This, Toop believes, could be the key to replicating the success of the London Challenge across the country. “How do we start to do that nationwide? I think we do that through the critical mass of leaders that we have in the system starting to work together,” he says.
Perhaps even more importantly, Toop thinks better leadership training could solve the teacher-retention crisis. “There are so many people who we could be keeping,” he says. “The two biggest reasons why people leave are quality of line management and lack of professional development opportunities. If we can get the leadership right, we can retain many more of our best people.”
CEOs ‘have to have integrity’
Leadership, of course, has its own recruitment issues – Toop points to a “bottleneck” in people moving into headship, as well as a shortage of quality candidates to be heads of department in English, maths and science. He suggests the accountability system is putting people off. “We don’t give people enough time to make changes,” he says. “It takes you three-plus years to really start to turn around a school; we need to find ways to give people time to really make those changes.”
High-stakes accountability has also given some school leaders a justification for demanding fat pay packets. As someone who prides himself on integrity, Toop says that the transparency around MAT CEO pay is “not that good”. He wants greater openness and clear independence in pay-setting, but he also thinks bosses need to take a lead.
“The CEO – they’ve got to have integrity,” he says. “What you get paid sends two messages: it sends a message about your organisation, but it also sends a message to the staff that work in your organisation.”
Toop is paid £115,000, for running Ambition – a largely publicly funded charity with a budget of £16 million and 200 employees. Now that it has responsibility for the whole school leadership pipeline, from middle leaders up to MAT CEOs, he thinks that there’s significant untapped potential for it to “deepen” its impact by supporting schools with all of their leadership needs.
As for his own future, Toop says that what he does is determined by an assessment of “where can I make the biggest difference and where are my skills best suited?”
“At the moment I think that’s here,” he adds. “Having worked blooming hard over the last two years to get the merger done, I’m excited to see what we can do next.”