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- Going for gold
Baroness Sue Campbell explains what lies behind Team GB’s phenomenal achievements at the Rio Olympics and how well-functioning schools have parallels in the turnaround in British sporting success. She talks to Dorothy Lepkowska. More
Baroness Sue Campbell explains what lies behind Team GB’s phenomenal achievements at the Rio Olympics and how well-functioning schools have parallels in the turnaround in British sporting success. She talks to Dorothy Lepkowska.
Going for gold
By any standards, British sportsmen and women have had an incredible few years of international success. The second place finish at the Rio 2016 made Team GB the first ever nation to surpass its medal total at the Olympics immediately following the one that it hosted.
Speaking to Baroness Sue Campbell makes patently clear how this was possible. As chair of UK Sport, she oversaw a cultural change in approach and attitude that has resulted in record numbers of medals and success. Britain now punches well above its weight and, unsurprisingly, other countries are curious to know how this has been achieved.
“We built a system where we focused on the right environment for success, rather than aiming for results and medals themselves,” Baroness Campbell explains. “If you look after the former, the latter happens naturally. And so it has proved.
“This translates into how schools operate too. It is not just about performance. It is also about moral purpose.”
Baroness Campbell, a former junior international pentathlete and netball player, is a keynote speaker at this year’s ASCL Annual Conference in March. In 2003, she was awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to sport, and she is currently head of women’s football at the Football Association.
As a former PE teacher and later Chair of the Youth Sport Trust, she understands well how schools work and the importance of strong, principled leadership.
The journey to creating a successful, well-functioning school has parallels in the turnaround in British sporting success. It is about strategic leadership and culture, she believes.
“Team GB has gone from good to being world-leading,” Baroness Campbell says. “This doesn’t just happen overnight. We had to create a culture for this to be achievable that included every individual involved in the system.”
The first element, she says, was making everyone feel valued. Every member of the team, regardless of whether this was a competitor, coach or medic had an input in terms of their voice being heard.
A culture of teamwork was also created. “No-one becomes world-class by magic,” Baroness Campbell says. “We had to consider how we got the small operational things right so that it made a difference overall. For example, we had to consider how to best use data and to ensure it was used effectively. There is no point in having masses of data on your athletes unless it is meaningful and you act upon it.”
One team, one mission
In turn, making good decisions created a culture where everyone was part of the action, and contributed to the overall objective. “We encouraged the notion of one team, one mission, with everyone striving for the same goal,” Baroness Campbell says.
“This translates well into the work of schools. Sometimes when I go into schools to do an in-service training day, I hear headteachers say ‘everyone is here now’ and yet I can hear the kitchen staff clanking away in the canteen.
“Those people also know a lot about the pupils; they have a view and things to say. It is important that they are part of the mission. No-one should be left out if they can make a difference.”
Arriving at a strategy for success requires consultation and feedback from everyone with a stake in the objectives for success. Again, the parallels between the sporting and education worlds are clear. “The first people you want to involve, in sport, are the athletes, just as in schools it would be the pupils,” Baroness Campbell says. “You need to find out what they think, how they are affected, what is happening to them, what injuries or shortfalls do they have.
“Then you look at the system – the sports coaches, managers, psychologists and medics – to ensure everyone is on board with practical development. After that, you examine governance. Just as you would in a school, you would look at how things are being managed overall.
“So with Team GB comprising 26 Olympic sports you would have every sport reporting back, and providing details and information – a bit like having 26 departments in a school. Every one will have different needs, experiences and perspectives. Where we see exceptional practice, we get one sport to work with another on things like peer-to-peer mentoring and co-operation to bring them all up to a good level.
“All the time the notion remains that we are one team and we have one mission. As Team GB we do not compete with each other.”
Create the right environment
The reality in sport, as in schools, is that no one exists on their own. “Headteachers need support as they are faced with constant changes,” Baroness Campbell adds. “One of the things I’ve observed is the constant state of flux in schools, and no sooner have headteachers dealt with one thing than another comes down the chute. Somehow, they have to manage and they have to maximise resources regardless.”
“At UK Sport, the objective is to get medals but the moral purpose is that it doesn’t matter where you come from, or what your background is. If you have ability and talent, and are determined to succeed, then you should have your chance to become the best in the world.
“If you concentrate solely on performance then you get incredible stresses in the system. But if you take care of people, whether it be sportsmen and women, or your students, then results – whether it is medals or examinations – will take care of themselves.
“That is the system we have tried to build. It focuses on the environment for success rather than the results themselves.”
She recalls her own student days at school in Derbyshire and how she lived for sport and PE lessons, and had a particular love of hockey. Later she went to Bedford Women’s PE College, which was one of the first institutions of its kind in the country and that “gave me great professional development and opportunities”.
Baroness Campbell mourns the loss of School Sport Partnerships and believes the legacy of London 2012 could have achieved more than it has for children and young people. “You have to give young people those opportunities,” she says. “My career would never have happened if my PE teacher had not said to me that I should make a living out of sport.”
Headteachers face the daily battles of ministerial diktat and decision-making, she says. “You can be respectful of ministers’ views but still be insistent that you know how to do the job,” Baroness Campbell says. “I had to ask Tessa Jowell, as Secretary of State for [Culture, Media and] Sport, to trust me to do what was right when often we had different ideas. You have to have the courage of your convictions, and to keep returning to the moral purpose, remembering why you went into the job.
“And in the context of schools, that means knowing what works best for your pupils.”
Taking the podium
Baroness Sue Campbell will share her experience of leadership as a keynote speaker at ASCL Annual Conference, 10–11 March in Birmingham. Book your place and attend our flagship event for all members of the leadership team. Visit www.ascl.org.uk/annualconference
Dorothy Lepkowska is a Freelance Education Writer.