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Sporting models to support coaching and leadership

In his book 'Bounce' (2010), Mathew Syed writes about many things pertinent to education and teachers. At the start of his book, he reflects on the factors that enabled him to become the number one table-tennis player in the UK. He identifies what he considers the four key factors in his rise to the top. These were: having a table to practise on; having an older brother who was just as enthusiastic and willing to play and practise with; having access to an enthusiastic, highly skilled and knowledgeable coach; having access to a club, which was always open, to play against others and support coaching. Syed notes how his small town, and in particular one street and its immediate surrounds, were producing more outstanding table-tennis players then the rest of the UK put together! His argument is that this was more a product of those unique circumstances, that identified and nurtured table-tennis talent, rather than any innate abilities to be found in youngsters in his local area.

I agree entirely with him on this, and have witnessed the same outcomes in various sports I have been involved with during my life.

When I was younger I played football for Wallsend Boys Club, not long after its establishment in the 1960s. Wallsend is a small town on the banks of the Tyne, not far from Newcastle. This club was to become a mecca for boys and coaches from the North Tyneside area, and beyond. Slowly and surely, this club started to produce more and more footballers who would go on to become professional players, and in some cases international ones too. Players like Peter Beardsley, Michael Carrick, Steve Bruce, Alan Shearer and many more emerged from this one small club, which bore similar characteristics to Syed's Omega Table-Tennis club, including opening twenty four hours, seven days a week. Success breeds success, and this particular club is still a production line for footballing prowess.

In my youth, my main interest was in running and athletics, not football, and I was a member of Heaton Harriers on the outskirts of Newcastle. As a member of this club, I was able to see the importance again of what Syed had identified, get an enthusiastic and committed coach, allied to opportunities for young people to participate, and there is no end to what can be achieved. Our little club sent an athlete to the 1968 Olympic Games, Maurice Benn in the 1500 metres. The club produced lots of local and district champions in cross-country and road running due to enthusiastic coaches and opportunities given to youngsters. This was replicated in other clubs across the North-East of England. Clubs like Saltwell Harriers, who produced international cross-country runners year after year, Morpeth Harriers who did likewise, as well as developing Jim Alder into a Commonwealth Games gold medal winning marathon champion. Elswick produced Mike McLeod who won silver at the Olympics in 10000 metres, as well as other good county runners. Jarrow was developing under the guiding eye of coach Jimmy Hedley, and would go on to produce Olympic Champion and World record holder Steve Cram. All of them offered enthusiastic coaching and turned no-one away.

But it was at Gateshead Harriers that we find an athletics club that was closest to replicating what Wallsend Boys Club is achieving in football. I saw this club grow from a small local running club into an athletics powerhouse. They key was dedicated and knowledgeable coaches who nurtured athletes and gave them all the support and opportunities they needed to become the best they could be. As a result a veritable production-line of athletic champions was produced, starting with Brendan Foster and including Charlie Spedding, Jonathan Edwards, Angela Piggford and many more. There is no reason why Gateshead, more famous for being the 'other' end of the Tyne Bridge to Newcastle, should produce so many first class athletes. But, again through the opportunities afforded, access to high quality coaching and support, they were able to keep building on their successes, and keep producing champions in an array of athletic disciplines. When I first ran at Gateshead stadium, it was a windswept ash track, now they have an all-weather track surface and stadium, accessible to all, and  the production line continues.

When I became a parent myself, I saw a similar pattern emerge as my own children became involved in the sport of badminton. My son played badminton for Scotland at all age levels, and my two daughters were county champions and consistently ranked in the top ten nationally at various age groups. This was mainly due to them having the opportunity to work with a high class coach in Pete Hardie of Duns, who has consistently produced Scottish players and champions at all levels, despite being located in the rural south of Scotland. What youngsters had though was access to high quality coaching and lots of opportunities to play and practice against and with each other in school halls across the Scottish Borders. My own children could also access the school hall in our own village, along with other interested youngsters, and I took a keen interest in coaching, learning more and more about the game and how to support young players. Our own village school, of never more than fifty pupils, had 8 or 9 players ranked in the top ten of their age groups in Scotland. I never thought this was because they were all so more able than thousands of other youngsters. They had the circumstances and coaches to support them, plus unlimited opportunities to practice and play, and benefitted as a result.

I have seen similar things happening in rugby, cricket, orienteering, cycling and mountain-biking, as well as golf, and I have no doubt that similar effects are to be found in all areas of endeavour, and at all levels, including at country level. Why should Finland produce so many world champions and record holders in Javelin throwing? Why is the UK dominating so many areas of cycling or rowing at the moment? I would suggest opportunity and high quality coaching, building on initial successes are key.

What lessons might there be here for school leadership and education system development?

Before I retired as a school leader, and since, I have had many opportunities to visit and work with schools and their leaders. These include many in Scotland as well as England, Wales, USA and Australia. There are many similarities to what Syed has written about, and I have described above, in the most successful schools and systems.

Where schools have a principal or leader who sees a key aspect of their role as the coaching and mentoring of those they work with, and are enthusiastic in pursuit of this, they are more likely to develop successful, collaborative learning cultures for all. In such schools, the leadership deeply understands learning, and is committed to constantly deepening that understanding for themselves and those they work with. They provide teachers and colleagues with constant support, opportunity, trust and coaching to help them grow their understanding and develop their practice. Such schools produce reflective teachers with dispositions to continuous professional growth, that is focused, collaborative and shaped by their personal and professional context. They successfully develop practice, informed by research and experience, and this creates more success, as well as attracting new members of staff who are similarly inclined towards their own development. There comes a time in such schools where they become truly self-developing and improving, though this is often linked to the length of time the school leader remains in post. Where school leaders change too often, impacts diminish, especially when changes mean that the coaching and support of staff are given less of a priority.

The schools I have seen that are most successful produce lots of high quality and reflective practitioners, but they also develop and grow more future leaders with similar dispositions. They produce teachers with high levels of agency and teacher leadership. They are more likely to have adaptive expertise and deal with change in a systematic and informed way. They tap into the expertise that resides within them to help all grow and to keep developing. They become centres of excellence in learning.

In conclusion, successful schools need to give teachers and leaders the opportunity to develop and grow their practice and understandings, in ways which are informed by research and their own context. They need to collaborate, internally and externally, and expect this of all, in order to support the growth of all. They need a leader who is committed to their own continuous development and that of those they lead, through coaching, mentoring and support. They will build on their successes and use coaching to address the areas they identify for further work.

'Every school, every teacher, every student deserves a school lead by a person who chooses positivity through words and actions.' Evan Robb @ERobbPrincipal Twitter 14 October 2018

' The main message, for the headteacher: Lead the change you want to see.' Michael Fullan 'What's Worth Fighting For In Headship?' (2007)

'turnarounds and changes that benefit many children and many schools … do not happen over-night with sudden switches in leadership-but only after years of continuous and unrelenting commitment to stronger working relationships and greater success.' Hargreaves, Boyle and Harris 'Uplifting Leadership' (2014)

'Systems with high adaptive capacity engage in a process of learning both up and down the system.' Helen Timperley (2011)


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