What education can learn from the world of football

Football teaches us about social justice – it seeks raw talent, not those from privileged backgrounds, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Professional football sets one good example to us all - it rewards raw talent, rather than just those from privileged backgrounds, writes Geoff Barton

Another week, another report on education. But this week’s publication called "Elitist Britain", produced by the Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission, contained a surprising insight.

Which is Britain’s most egalitarian profession?

The answer: football.

In men’s football, across the English, Scottish and Welsh national football teams, just 5 per cent attended independent schools – slightly lower than the proportion of people who attended independent schools in the general population, which is 7 per cent. The proportion of women football internationals who came from independent schools was even lower, at just 2 per cent.

This is in contrast to the situation in many other professions where independent school pupils make up a much larger proportion of the workforce. Here are a few examples: senior judges (65 per cent from independent schools); government permanent secretaries (59 per cent); diplomats and junior ministers (both 52 per cent); armed forces (49 per cent); and newspaper columnists (44 per cent).

This is not, by the way, an attack on independent schools. I know from my colleagues in the sector that they are acutely conscious of the need to improve equality of opportunity across society, and many work very successfully with state schools and operate bursary schemes to widen access.

Football and social justice

So let’s not fall into the trap of pitting state versus independent schools. What this is really about is the dichotomy between advantage and disadvantage in general.

So, what, if anything, can we learn from the example of football? Are there lessons that would help to make other professions, and thus society in general, more egalitarian?

Of course, the world of football is very different from the world of the judiciary and newspaper columnists, and we need to be careful not to stretch comparisons too far. But it seems to me that there is something in this. Because the world of football is focused entirely on spotting talent rather than on all the measures of ability that we use in the wider world, and that are so often influenced by social background.

Let’s examine the ways in which we measure ability:

First, and most obviously, there are qualifications, by which we set such store as a reliable measure of aptitude and ability for universities and careers. And yet every shred of evidence and data shows that achievement in qualifications is closely associated with background; that children from advantaged backgrounds with all the social, economic and cultural benefits of middle-class life are likely to do better than children who come from disadvantaged homes.

Second, and less obviously, there is the subtler stuff; the ability to communicate confidently and assuredly in the interviews and presentations that form part of recruitment processes. If you are used to doing this, if it is part of your upbringing to converse with many high-powered adults, if you mix with peers from similar backgrounds, then you have an advantage. If this is not your life story then interviews and presentations can be a horrific, paralysing, ordeal.

Third, there is work experience, internships and the like. And, again, if you are from an advantaged background and you know who to contact and where there are opportunities, you are better equipped to secure the type of placements that shine on CVs. You are also more likely to have the financial support that allows you to gain that experience on an unpaid basis.

You get the picture. The measures that we use to select the "best" candidates are, in fact, heavily dependent on background, and if you have the three attributes mentioned above – good qualifications, excellent communication skills and great work experience – it is a clean sweep.

Football looks for only one thing: are you good at football? That is obviously not something that we can apply to professions more widely – you cannot scout for a 14-year-old who would make the best judge – so we have to rely on our measures of ability instead.

Disadvantaged children

And it is also worth noting that there are distinct downsides to the rather ruthless process of selection in men’s football. The Elitist Britain report observes that aspiring players are “encouraged and incentivised in large numbers to leave education at an early age, and for the many who won’t make the grade, they are left with few qualifications”.

But the trick is surely to recognise that the measures we generally use for recruitment in the wider world, whether that be to university or employment, tell us something, but not everything. That it is important to look at the whole person, their background, what challenges they may have had to overcome in their lives. We need to better recognise the merits of candidates with a slightly lower set of grades and slightly less polished communication skills, but who may have come a very long way in their lives through dint of their hard work and determination.

I know that this is not easy. That it involves quite complex and nuanced recruitment processes. But this is surely something we must get better at doing as a society if we are genuinely going to improve social justice.

I am also aware that there will be those who say that the answer lies with the state education system, that there are too many pockets of underperformance. But this is not because of any lack of effort and commitment from leaders and teachers. On the contrary, what I see across the country is leaders and their teams working tirelessly, often in extremely challenging circumstances, to deliver the best possible life chances for their students.

The problem is with the chronic underfunding of our education system, the ongoing teacher recruitment and retention crisis, an unrelenting accountability system that stigmatises struggling schools and makes their job even harder, and generational poverty that has robbed too many communities of hope.

We cannot just wish for a more egalitarian society. We need to make it happen. And that requires a properly resourced and deliverable strategy, a recognition that more of the same old accountability measures won’t change the game, and a new sense of national mission for the children who are currently left on the margins. Unless they make it as professional footballers.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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