June 2016


  • Game theory
    Schools and colleges can learn lessons about leadership, trust and making the most of opportunities from the way that our elite sports teams are run, says Malcolm Trobe. More
  • The diamond standard
    ASCL Specialist Suzanne O’Farrell offers top tips to help schools inject more challenge into the curriculum and ensure that the latest wave of reforms translates into higher standards. More
  • A champion for wellbeing
    Amid growing concern over student mental health, one school has taken the radical step of bringing a doctor on board, as Assistant Headteacher Janet Goodliffe explains. More
  • The details man
    The new Foundation for Leadership in Education will play a vital role in ensuring that heads are equipped and ready to drive the next phase of reform, says Sir Michael Barber. He talks to Julie Nightingale. More
  • Engage, enable, enrich
    To forge the next step on the journey from good to great, the dynam ics of the education system must change. This was the key message from ASCL President Allan Foulds in his ‘eng age, enable and enrich’ keynote to conference. More
  • Mutual friends
    A new website is helping to highlight good practice in independent and state school partnerships and encouraging others to get involved. Members of the Independent State Schools Partnership (ISSP) Forum Deborah Leek-Bailey and Julie Robinson explain the thinking. More
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Schools and colleges can learn lessons about leadership, trust and making the most of opportunities from the way that our elite sports teams are run, says Malcolm Trobe.

Game theory

During the rugby season, I spend most Thursday evenings coaching a development team of young adults and Saturday afternoons pacing a usually wet and windy touchline encouraging and advising them. When I run through the guidance that I am trying to give them on the rugby field, I see an increasing number of parallels in my messaging as a sports coach with school and college leadership.

Two of my regular demands are to “play with your heads up” and “don’t stick to set plays – play what is in front of you”. These are taken from the preparatory work of the 2003 World Cup-winning England rugby team. They worked with a vision coach, Dr Sherylle Calder, who gave them a brilliantly simple acronym to remember – CTC, which stood for ‘Crossbar, Touchlines, Communicate’.

It was a message to all those players not immediately engaged in securing the ball to get their heads up and look down the field towards the crossbar and then to the touchlines, looking for space and opportunities to attack. Once players have seen opportunities, they then have to communicate it to their teammates.

Rugby players who play with their heads down will not see the opportunities that are in front of them. Given the accountability pressures and the pace of change in school it is easy to see how the same thing can happen in school leadership: not looking upwards and outwards to examine the opportunities will lead to us focusing on simply what is in front of us, so it becomes routine management rather than leadership.

We all know how essential internal communications is so that once the opportunities are seen it is important to communicate to others so that everyone is aware of the objective and the required actions. As school and college leaders perhaps we should have our own version of CTC?

Vary your approach

Eddie Jones, England’s new rugby coach, has changed the mindset of his players this season away from the focus of working on set plays. Not relying on set ways of doing things is something that also needs to be in a leader’s mindset. Different situations demand different responses and reactions and having the flexibility to vary your approach and ‘play what is in front of you’ is an important aspect of leadership.

There was another parallel with education in an interview he gave earlier this year, when he said, “I deal with what I have control over; I don’t worry about the things that aren’t in my control.” In 1992, Michael Fullan, international expert on education leadership, wrote, ‘There is no point in lamenting the fact that the system is unreasonable and no percentage in waiting around for it to become more reasonable. It won’t!’

Recently, I heard Baroness Sue Campbell speak at the Youth Sport Trust conference. She was talking about her leadership of UK Sport as she helped take them from tenth in the Olympic medals table in Athens (2004) to third in London (2012), more than doubling the total number of medals won by British athletes in the process.

One striking parallel with education came when she was ensuring that her staff knew who they were really working for – not the government nor the sports’ governing bodies but the athletes themselves. In schools and colleges it is not the government or Ofsted that should drive our actions but doing the very best for the children and young people in our care. It was that advice from Sue that led me to finish my conference speech about ASCL’s leadership role by saying that we should “speak on behalf of members” and “act on behalf of children and young people”.

All of this is clearly expressed in our blueprint for a self-improving system in which we state that our vision can best be fulfilled by government stepping back and the profession stepping forward.

‘Trust your teammates’ is another key message, one I heard used by Scott Bemand, lead coach of the England Women’s Rugby Union team. In a team sport, everyone has their own roles to fulfil and everyone has to rely on everyone else to do their own job. Problems occur when someone doesn’t trust the person beside them and steps in to try to do the job of that person instead of their own, leaving a gap where they should be.

Confident leadership

Yes, in schools we will all try to cover one another on occasions but the broad principle holds true in the leadership group or even the whole staff of a school or college: trust does not always come immediately, it takes time to develop and there are setbacks when people make mistakes. Sports teams and school staff teams need to develop confidence and that comes from confident leadership.

Trust is important in our wider educational system as well. As Peter Kent, last year’s ASCL President, made clear with his theme of ‘Trust to transform’, if we are to achieve a truly transformational change in our educational system, ministers must not try to micromanage it. They should trust school and college leaders to have a much greater say over the curriculum, accountability, standards and professional development.

We expect every sports team to have a coach to help guide them through the trials and tribulations of the season and to look to improve the performance of the individuals and the team. In many commercial organisations, the senior executives also have coaches to work with them and often with their leadership group. The development of more coaching and mentoring support for school leaders was an outcome of the DfE response to the workload challenge but we have yet to see what support will be offered.

Unbridled optimism

When I started out as a school leader, I was fortunate to be in a study group with Tim Brighouse, an expert in leadership of education who went on to be London Schools Commissioner. The overriding message that I have never forgotten was the number one on Tim’s list of necessary characteristics for a school leader: unbridled optimism. So a positive approach is essential.

A self-improving system needs confident schools and colleges. And confident schools and colleges need confident leaders. Confident leaders need the encouragement, support and trust of the government and inspectorate to do what is right for the students in their school or college.

Finally, another of my rugby coaching mantras is, “We can only score when we’ve got the ball – so when you have it make the most of it.” Although full academisation has been the dominating feature of the white paper, it makes many clear references to a school-led system and, as such, gives us opportunities to take the lead and make the self-improving system real.

We should follow the approach of William Webb Ellis in 1823 when he picked up the ball and ran with it, thus creating the rugby-style of play. The Secretary of State has given us the ball of the self-improving school-led system. It is up to us to run with it.

Confident leaders need the encouragement, support and trust of the government and inspectorate to do what is right for the students in their school or college.

Malcolm Trobe is ASCL Interim General Secretary