Welcome to the real world: football manager syndrome


It’s obvious really.  Schools, like football clubs, are ranked in league tables.  Headteachers, like football managers, have to go if they don’t get the right results.  Welcome to the real world.

It doesn’t matter what happened last year – or last week; you are only as good as your most recent results.  The idea seems to be catching on and was quite blatantly stated in my case: “Education is a business like football, in that it is based on results.  If we had been in the Premier League we would have been relegated this year.1”   In the real world of football, people lose their jobs all the time, and what’s good for the 92 professional football clubs in this country is obviously good for the local school.  Or is it?

Firstly, most state schools are not football clubs who can choose all their own students.  Players do not arrive and depart during transfer windows.  Some aren’t really fit enough to play but have to go out on the field anyway.  [2See this footnote for the full analogy – quite a moving tale, in my view].  Schools also have to contend with goalposts moving during the course of a season and frequent rule changes, sometimes announced in Sunday newspapers.

Schools may serve communities where students enter with prior attainment significantly below average (i.e. in the bottom 25% nationally3) or where there is significant mobility.  These schools are not selective. They do not have a common entrance exam to get in or weed out likely under performers in the sixth form before they take their A-levels4.  They do not throw people out for routine misconduct.  Some, however, do have boards of directors and it is often they that draw the ire of the supporters when things go wrong, rather than the manager.  I know this only too well, having played a small part in the fans fight to save my adopted team Brighton & Hove Albion from total oblivion in the late 90s5.

Archer out

The team was distinctly average and many ofthe results dire, but the fans fury was focussed firmly on the chairman Bill Archer and his side-kick, a former LibDem MP, David Bellotti (below). Both thought they knew what the locals wanted but had lost contact with reality.


 Secondly, last season in May I sat and watched with mounting gloom as the team I’ve supported all my life, Manchester City, performed dismally and deservedly lost the FA Cup Final 0-1 to Wigan Athletic.  City fans consoled themselves with finishing second in the Premier League – not bad for a team that was in the third tier of English football as recently as 1999.  The previous season we had won the Premier League in the best possible way imaginable, snatching the prize from local rivals United in the last minute of the season.  City fans still idolised the manager Roberto Mancini.  However, just two days after the cup final defeat, Mancini was sacked.  City are now the richest club in the world, success is non-negotiable, Mancini had not met his targets – and after all, business is business.

What happened down the road at Wigan is similarly revealing.  They promptly lost their next league match after the cup final and were relegated.


Despite this being a shock, their manager Roberto Martinez’s position was never in doubt.  He enjoyed a different sort of relationship than the average football manager with his Chairman Dave Whelan, who believed in what they were all trying to achieve.  Whelan is an ex-businessman but he was realistic.  He knew that Martinez had done his best with the resources at his disposal and that Wigan played a clever brand of attractive football.  He didn’t believe in success at any cost.  The club was built on values that would endure the inevitable setbacks along the way. 

Although he had made history at Wembley the week before, Martinez clearly hadn’t hit his targets – just like Mancini, in fact.  Nevertheless, the question of him being sacked never arose, not even to Whelan the businessman.  Martinez had been a successful manager at Wigan and before that at Swansea, and in many ways still was. Whelan stood by his man.  In the end, Martinez landed a plum job and was ‘promoted’ to manage Everton.  Like Wigan, the other two Premier League relegated sides, Reading and QPR, also retained their managers.  In fact, of the 12 relegated professional clubs at the end of the 2012-13 season across four divisions, only two teams sacked their managers.  In fairness to the analogy, in the surreal world of football management, most teams actually sack their managers during the season, rather than at the end, in an effort to avoid relegation after a run of particularly disastrous results.

Schools only really find out their results at the end of the season.  There were two sets of results in my case.  A-level results mid-August were “truly astonishing6”- the best ever, with 28 students heading to university.  This is in a locality that had never even had a sixth form until we opened one in 2009.  GCSE results in English a week later were down, with lots of D grades rather than Cs on the foundation paper.  The 5A*-C (with English and maths) was down and the rest is history, as they say7.  No need to have regard to what was playing out nationally with shifts in English GCSE results or analyse what happened in more detail8.  The results were worse than predicted and the conclusion inevitable.  Schools, it is said, can’t tolerate young people getting poor results as they only get one chance at an education.  You can’t bounce back in education from relegation.

Professional football clubs are not really proper businesses.  Most clubs would cease trading tomorrow if expenditure had to be covered by income.   Decisions are often made based on emotion, in the heat of the moment or because boards come under significant external pressure.  You wouldn’t run a school like that.  Clubs like Brighton & Hove Albion are not alone in having to endure their most traumatic eras while being run by ‘businessmen’ from the ‘real world’.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s the type looking to make a fast buck or the ones who wish to massage their egos.  It doesn’t have to be like that though, as Dave Whelan at Wigan demonstrates.

Schools certainly aren’t conventional businesses either.  They are non-profit making , they don’t answer to shareholders or directors who hope to gain financially or professionally.  They don’t make short term decisions based on ‘the bottom line’.  They don’t make products but they do have multiple goals and an impact that is hard to sum up in one set of results.  They should be directly accountable to the local communities they serve.  And of course, they still need to be run in a business-like manner – and there the choice is still between the Dave Whelan style or the ruthless style employed at Manchester City.  Which is more sustainable in the long-term is a matter of debate.

Schools do have something slightly in common with football clubs, being one of the few places left in society where the same people come together regularly in  large numbers for a common purpose.  But of course schools have a much more important over-riding moral mission to work for the common good.  The church, the scouts and guides, the trades unions and political parties have all seen a dramatic decline in mass membership.  In an increasingly fragmented, sometimes individualistic culture, state schools are still there, plugging away day in day out in doing the best for their communities.

The real heroes in education are the people turning up every day to walk into classrooms and schools to inspire the next generation.  These are the adults who work with all young people – including those who have a lot more on their mind than whether they did their geography homework last night.  How the staff sustain themselves every day to do this is a mystery, but it must have something to do with an unflinching belief in shaping the future for young people.  ‘Making a difference’ is a cliché, but that’s what the vast majority of people came into teaching for.

Contrary to what one might read in the Daily Mail or Telegraph, the vast majority of state schools are not in crisis – they are doing a great job and are very popular with parents and students.   The great value of schools in 2013 is that they epitomise the very best of human values – of fairness, compassion, aspiration and togetherness, as well as achievement.  They nurture and sustain the human spirit.   Without that, targets, results and league tables risk reducing our national education debate to the banalities of football manager syndrome.  There is a lot more at stake here than the manager’s job, out there in the real world.


1 Wiltshire Conservative Councillor Mark Connolly, former chair of governors of Castledown School, Wellington Academy governor 2009-13 and Bristol Rovers fan, Salisbury Journal, 5th September 2013

2Letter to Andover Advertiser, 12th September 2013

3Intakes in the state system are analysed according to prior attainment in year 6.  Significantly below national average is the label for the bottom 25% of schools on prior attainment.

4If your AS level isn’t up to scratch you’re out, Daily Telegraph, 29th August 2013

5 Brighton rocked by civil war, Independent, 29th October 1996

6 Quote from chairman in Wellington Academy press release – A-level results, 15th August 2013

7Wellington Academy press release GCSE results 2013, 29th August 2013

8Brief summary of GCSE English results 2013

‘Candid’ academy talks

Latest local news from Andover Advertiser, October 4th

Tidworth councillor Mark Connolly (formerly the chair of governors of the predecessor school to Wellington Academy, as well as an Academy governor until last summer – and most recently the advocate of football manager syndrome, see Advertiser 6th Sept) told town councillors that he has held a meeting with Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, to discuss the situation at Wellington Academy following the departure of principal Andy Schofield.

Cllr Connolly, who represents Tidworth at County Hall, said: “It was a candid meeting.  We (sic) were heartened by the things we heard about discipline which may have been a bit lacking in recent times.  There are not going to be any quick changes at the top – Mike Milner will continue in post until a new principal is appointed.”

He added that the governors may take some time to make the right choice.  (All very odd, given the recent advertisement for the post in the TES and Guardian.)

Plans for the academy to expand have also emerged, with a new sixth form block open on the nearby Castledown Business Park – freeing up around 300 additional places in the main academy building.  Meanwhile in Tidworth work on a new primary school is expected to begin in November on the North East Quadrant housing site. (Due to open September 2014, sponsored by Wellington College).

Still making local headlines

Principal must be reinstated (letter Andover Advertiser, Sept 20)

I felt I had to write to add my voice to last week’s correspondence concerning Andy Schofield and the Wellington Academy.

The front page story of 6 September gave the impression that Mr Schofield left the Academy following poor GCSE results.  Yet in your paper of 13 September (under the headline “Ensuring all pupils strive to succeed”) was a very different view of the results.  It seems that 93 per cent of Wellington students achieved five or more A* -C grades in GCSE and 77 per cent achieved eight ormore A* -C.

These results seem extremely good for a non-selective state school and would accord with your previous correspondent’s view that the students of WellingtonAcademy get enough exam passes to move on in life.

They may not all be in the GCSE subjects valued by Dr Seldon and Wellington College but, for some kids, they are more than enough to begin to break the cycle of social deprivation.

If I were still an Academy parent I would be petitioning the governors to bring back Andy Schofield, as I feel he has been unjustly forced out for reasons that, in light of the above, are now unclear.

I know anecdotes aren’t evidence, but I would like to share the following with your readers. My son was given a place in the Wellington Academy sixth form when no other post-16 educational opportunity was available.  He enjoyed his year there. made valuable progress in core subjects and took the Applied Learning Construction course.  This enabled him to get a place on a training scheme with a major house-builder and he is learning valuable skills for today’s job market.

Football manager syndrome | analogy pt2

Principal led his ‘team’ with style

Thursday 12th September 2013 in letters, Andover Advertiser

I am writing to offer another perspective to the story on your front page of 6 September about Wellington Academy. One commentator said “education is a business, like football” – presumably to justify Andy Schofield being treated like a football manager whose chairman had run out of patience.  It would be easy if education was, indeed, a business like Premiership football.  The heads would select and buy students, train and coach them to do one thing, ie play football and then, if they failed to score enough goals for the club to get up the league table, send them off on a free transfer.

What Andy Schofield said at Wellington Academy was that anyone who turns up will get a game.  His players were just sent to his club, he couldn’t and wouldn’t pick and choose.  Andy Schofield never sent any of his footballers away on a free transfer.  He kept them all at the club, even when they turned up with no kit or were too exhausted to play because they had had nothing to eat since training the day before.  He kept them when they had never seen a ball before or weren’t sure of the offside rule.  He even took the occasional player who had been thrown out of someone else’s club. Some of his players came from overseas and, when they arrived, couldn’t understand what the coaches were saying.

And more and more players chose to come to the club because they liked Andy Schofield’s style of football and they loved the club.  Did he make the club Premier League in five (sic) years?  Of course not.  Did all his players become Rodney Marsh?  Of course not.  But they ended up much better footballers than they would have been at other clubs and had skills that enabled them to move on and enjoy productive lives as good citizens.  Sadly, the sponsor on the shirts was Wellington College and this year Andy’s fabulous, raggle taggle footballers became too much of an embarrassment for those in the directors’ box.

The word education comes from the Latin e-ducere, meaning to lead out.  Andy Schofield’s style of education does just that – it leads out of the children the best of their potential.  He, too, is a skilled educationalist, and his wide experience comes from state school education.  I hope that when next year’s results are published there is an acknowledgement that 80 per cent of those students’ education will have been under the headship of Andy Schofield.

He did great things at Wellington Academy. He deserved much more and there should be sorrow for what has been lost.

Name and address supplied, Andover

© Copyright 2001-2013 Newsquest Media Group

This weekend’s news

TES 6th Sept: Wellington Academy: questions raised over Head’s departure after impressive A level results

Local Schools Network: Head of sponsored academy falls on his sword after poor GCSE results: Is this fair?

Andover Advertiser Sainsburys

Andover Advertiser 6th Sept: Academy Head in Sudden Exit (see below for content)

Salisbury Journal 5th Sept: Wellington Academy headteacher steps down

Interview with Chair of GB – not sacked!

BBC Radio Wilts Drive Time News 2nd September

David Cowley, Chair of GB, explains it all  at 1.05.40 to 1.11.10 on the podcast

“ keep referring to Mr Schofield being sacked, that has not happened.  Mr Schofield has left the academy.”

‘Well can I ask, if he wasn’t sacked, what happened?’

“The results were, as I’ve said, and it’s not just the results, it’s the lead up to the results, I, er, we, er, in discussion, and we’re still in discussion, but technically speaking, ehm, the form of those discussions has to remain confidential to me, Mr Schofield and the Academy.”

@RealGeoffBarton comments at 2.09.01 to 2.14.00

See Wellington Academy page on this blog for a slightly more balanced view on our results for 2013

Coverage of last Friday’s news

TES 6th Sept: Wellington Academy: questions raised over Head’s departure after impressive A level results

Salisbury Journal 5th Sept: Wellington Academy headteacher steps down

Western Daily Press Sept 4th: Head leaves trial academy

Tidworth Councillor Mark Connolly, ex-Academy governor and ex-Chair of Castledown School Governors

Spire FM 3rd Sept: Wellington Academy Principal leaves after results decline

Times 3rd Sept: Wellington College delay Academy plans

Daily Telegraph 3rd Sept: Dr Anthony Seldon parachuted in

Independent 2nd Sept: Head of Wellington Academy forced out

Andover Advertiser 30th Aug: New regime at Wellington Academy

TES Aug 30: Head leaves Wellington Academy