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Headteachers: are you a Mourinho or a Klopp?

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Ever wondered what type of leaders make the best headteachers? You’re in luck, because a group of researchers working for the Harvard Business Review have done some research into it.

The researchers noticed that the UK ranks significantly lower than expected in international education rankings when compared to how much it invests in education. To try to work out the cause of this, they studied the changes made by over 400 leaders of academies and how they impacted on pupil results.

Based on its findings, the article argues that headteachers can be roughly divided into five types of leader. Unfortunately, schools are often appointing, rewarding, and recognising the wrong type of leader.

Each type of leader has different characteristics, and the article has summarised the five types by relating them to different professions:

  • Surgeons
  • Soldiers
  • Accountants
  • Philosophers
  • Architects

Now, my problem with the article is that these chosen professions aren’t the best way of portraying the five types of leaders. A philosopher headteacher sounds like an awful nightmare where Hobbes has been trusted to run a school. The school days are admittedly short, but they're also nasty and brutish. On another note, soldiers in schools just sounds unrealistic.

So, instead of professions, I thought it’d be better to haphazardly compare each headteacher type to a Premier League manager. This will hopefully create #viralcontent. In my next performance review, it should also make it slightly easier for me to explain why I occasionally appear to be reading the Guardian football section at my desk. For similar reasons, my next blog post will be comparing a piece of education research to this video reel of the top ten Matt Le Tissier goals.

So, here are the five types of headteachers, removed from the shackles of professions, and instead compared to Premier League football managers.

Jose Mourinho (the surgeon)

Mourinho can’t be trusted with a scalpel, due to his history of eye-poking. Despite this, he’s clearly the most suited to the surgeon category.

Headteachers who are surgeons are decisive and incisive. They tend to be “high profile” individuals who identify what’s not working and address the issue as quickly as possible to improve results in the short term. This often involves “cutting” out poor performers and making the rest of the pupils work harder.

While this does work in the short term, usually for about one or two years, these results don’t last. Once the surgeon leaves, exam results fall back to where they started, and it’s obvious that younger pupils have been ignored and under-resourced.

The article adds:

In the meantime, buoyed up by an undeserved reputation, the surgeon has moved on to their next patient.

Mourinho has selfishly half-ruined this comparison by being unable to improve Manchester United. However, his managerial history is filled with examples of him ruthlessly sorting teams out. He achieves some great results in the first two seasons and then moves on before or during the third season.

Tony Pulis (the soldier)

Soldiers like efficiency and order, which is similar to a lot of Premier League managers who float around the lower mid-regions of the table. However, their main focus is cost. They cut any spending that is unnecessary and create a climate of fear and low morale. They tend not to improve results, but they are:

… tenacious, cost-cutting, and task-focused leaders who believe they need to trim back every ounce of fat and make people work harder.

However, the situation they create is unsustainable. Eventually, staff are exhausted, the headteacher moves on to their next “mission”, and costs return to normal.

While he doesn't have such a strict focus on cost (just look at his decadent spending on hats), the sheer focus on efficiency means this one has to be Tony Pulis.

Arsene Wenger (the accountant)

Accountants strengthen schools by growing them. They are “resourceful, systematic, and revenue-focused leaders” who improve the school’s long-term financial performance. While results may remain the same, the school has more funds and financial security than ever before.

Clearly, this is Arsene Wenger ever since Arsenal's stadium move.

“Revenue increases dramatically during their tenure, but examination results remain the same as this is not their focus” is basically a summary of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal post-2006. You can read very similar lines in a Forbes analysis of Arsenal’s stadium move:

The trophy haul garnered during Wenger’s first decade in charge have largely evaporated with just two FA Cup wins since the move to Arsenal’s new home at the Emirates Stadium.

Although much of the discussion of Arsene Wenger’s future revolves around the lack of silverware over the last ten years or so, the legacy of Wenger that will shape Arsenal’s fortunes for many years to come will be Emirates Stadium.

Louis van Gaal (the philosopher)

Look, I know this is the obvious choice. But read the characteristics and tell me this isn't van Gaal's Man United:

  • “Fundamentally, nothing changes
  • When asked why performance hasn’t improved, the philosopher says, “These things take time. Teaching is an art and it can’t be transformed overnight.”
  • “There are no significant improvements during the philosopher’s tenure and performance — both examination results and financial — coasts or declines after they leave”

Jürgen Klopp (the architect)

Architects are very much the opposite of surgeons. Instead of short-term results, they focus on long-term impact. They think that improving a school takes time, and focus on long-term holistic solutions. Results tend not to improve at first, but then slowly get better over time. Importantly, the positive impact continues even after the headteacher leaves.

Speaking as an incredibly biased Liverpool fan - yes, but this is clearly most reminiscent of Jürgen Klopp. Klopp stays at clubs for extended periods of time, managing at both Mainz 05 and Borussia Dortmund for seven years. He slowly improved Dortmund's league position during his time there, albeit with a slight dip towards the end, while also taking them to a Champions League final.

His year at Liverpool has seen him focus on long-term solutions that help the whole team. While this did not improve results at first, it is now starting to. This will inevitably result in Liverpool winning the league this season. With Jordan Henderson inevitably winning the golden boot.

So which manager do we need our headteachers to be?

The researchers found that Kloppian architects are the only leaders who improve schools in the long run. However, schools tend not to recognise, reward or appoint them. Instead, Mourinhos are appointed due to their ability to dramatically improve results in the short term. They also, on average, get paid more than other headteachers. The current system rewards this type of leader, but fails to see the impact in the long term:

We fail to see the long-term problems created by simply excluding poor performing students and focusing resources on improving immediate examination results. In some cases it took schools four years to recover from these changes, with up to $2 million paid to consultants to help clear up the mess.

Van Gaalesque philsophers, Pulis-like soldiers and Arseney accountants all receive more pay and recognition than architects.

The researchers argue that we therefore need to rejig the system. The new system should reward and recognise architects, rather than the other types of leader. One way to do this, it says, would be to change how we measure the impact of a headteacher. Instead of measures that allow short-term getarounds, we need measures that focus on what leaders do in the long term.

The research found that architects often had experience working in a different sector or industry before going into teaching. We also need to move away from the view that headteachers must have spent their entire career as a teacher.

On a school level, headteachers and school leaders could also try to be less Mourinho and more Klopp. From now on, when making a decision, just think: what would Jürgen do?

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