Football Manager Syndrome: FFS! or DSS?

Posted on March 11, 2017

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Perhaps one of the most pervasive myths around school leadership at the moment is what school leaders like to call Football Manager Syndrome (FMS for the remainder of this post). I wasn’t at the ASCL conference but I’m guessing that the words rang out on numerous occasions over the duration of the weekend. 

The myth, as is the way of myths, has some resonance with a truth in education: that the position of Headteacher has become less assured and more threatened under the increasingly high stakes accountability regime for schools and colleges. This much I get, even though most of the bottom lines within the school that employs me as a Head are good or better. I get it on an almost daily basis when looking at the risks sneaking up at me (in reality, at us) from all angles, be they budgetary, behavioural, parental, inspectorial, safeguardingy and, lest we forget, those regarding the attainment and progress of students. 

Thus, school leaders are similar – so say those explaining FMS – to the football managers who are routinely sacked after a poor run of results that often are mixed up with the exodus of their players for more money, insufficient budgets to compete with the ‘big boys’ in the league, an injury list that reads like a who’s who of the first team and other such factors out of their control. Again, I have sympathy, not least of all because I have seen the impact of this from fairly close hand in recent months. And I have empathy because such a fate awaits any of us given that selfsame “poor run of results”. 

But I do think that FMS is becoming (has become?) something of a myth and is, under scrutiny, a wildly inappropriate metaphor for the position in which Headteachers find themselves these days.  Or, another way of looking at it, it is a wildly inappropriate metaphor for the position in which Headteachers would want to find themselves, but could very well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In one sense the concept of FMS does not serve us well and in another sense it is too self-serving. 

To illustrate the concept of FMS not serving us well, let’s take the example of Jose Mourinho.  Having won the hearts and minds of Chelsea fans, not to mention the Premiership in the 2014-15 season, Mourinho was summarily dismissed after (for his Chelsea team) a freakishly bad 2015-16 season that also saw the freakishly runaway title win of the Leicester team that had only avoided relegation narrowly as Mourinho’s charges were lifting the title. I won’t dwell on the fact that Leicester’s title-winning miracle-worker, Claudio Ranieri, has also been similarly dismissed this season, but my point has been made by not dwelling upon it. 

With Mourinho there is the classic example of what Heads refer to as the Football Manager Syndrome, a successful manager who is cast aside following a bad set of results. How doesn’t this serve us well?  First of all, The Special One was back in the saddle of another massive club within months of being dismissed. That’s not a luxury to which a sacked Headteacher can aspire. I’m still intensely troubled by the fact that I once saw a former Head and someone I line manage refuse to even interview a candidate for a maternity cover teaching post because the applicant, whose details came to us through a supply agency, had previously led a school through an inadequate Ofsted inspection. 

Having this season led Manchester United (as he did Chelsea the previous season) to their worst start in the Premiership era, Mourinho may well be sacked again in the near future, but I’m willing to lay good odds that he will, very soon afterwards, be snaffled by another giant club in the European game to help lead them to title success. I’d lay even more generous odds that a Headteacher twice sacked would never be given a third chance in the remainder of their career. 

FMS also doesn’t serve us well because of the public/private divide and the vastly different terms and conditions of employment between our sectors, differences that have been exaggerated beyond caricature since the advent of the Premier League, the Champions’ League and, latterly, the growth of American and Asian leagues underpinned by the ill-gotten gains of globalisation and neoliberal economic policies around the world. Quite simply put, the world of a Headteacher doesn’t compare with the world of a football manager, be that in terms of their own employment or of those that they employ (many of whom in football will be much better paid than the manager themselves). 

Even taking an example such as the increasingly much-maligned Arsène Wenger, a man who has managed the same club in a sustainable and (relatively/undisputedly?) successful manner for more than two decades, there are not many sensible comparisons to be had. Yes, he is under huge pressure after a poor set of results, a long time without winning the ultimate prize in domestic football and an eternity without winning the most coveted trophy in European club football. And yes, this is against a backdrop of thoughtful, principled tactics on and off the field that have made the club a sustainable and strong business more able to withstand a financial hurricane in the industry that always seems near to hand but never materialises. But the economic and employment models of the Arsenal success story don’t come anywhere close to those of a school and we should avoid comparisons of the kind engendered by the pervasiveness of the phrase ‘Football Manager Syndrome’ because we should not want to graft any of these economic and employment models onto our school system. 

Which brings me to my point about the FMS chorus being in danger of becoming self-serving for Headteachers and potentially corrosive for the school system. At a time when we, as Headteachers, are banging on about the government’s poor slicing of the insufficiently sized cake of school funding, we, as a school system, are creating a wage gap between our average and highest earners that is hardly a model of how to slice a cake fairly or sustainably. More often than not, all of this is done under the excuse that Headteachers’ job security is akin to that of a football manager, and saying it is in danger of making it so. 

In our increasingly Multi Academy Trust dominated education world, we are witnessing the rise of supersalaries for CEO Heads and Executive Heads even as we are hearing them bang on about the fact that they aren’t the SuperHeads copyrighted in the early part of the century. Routinely now, these super-remunerated Headteachers are being paid close to £150k to run a single school or a small handful of schools which continue to employ Heads of School on salaries akin to those previously paid to, erm, Headteachers. Barely a week goes by within the educational press when we don’t hear about MATs paying their ‘lead teacher’ a salary in excess of £200k, or a bonus system that racks up digits that wouldn’t have looked out of place during the heady days of the FTSE ‘shareholders’ spring’ around the time of the 2008 crash (I may be exaggerating here, but you take my point), or some pretty dodgy third-party payment schemes that would make Francois Fillon blush, or even some double salaries being routed through consultancy firms registered to Headteachers. 

At the same time, we have witnessed and are witnessing a brutal assault on the terms and conditions of standard scale classroom teachers and support staff that has repeatedly frozen or limited pay awards, linked them to performance and deregulated them from previously established national benchmarks. We have witnessed a sharp and exponential increase in the number of school staff being ‘moved on’ because they are on the wrong bus, to the extent that one school is happy to crow about a 90% attrition rate that should cause them to hang their collective heads in shame. 

And then, when we can’t hire decent replacements for these former colleagues, we turn to cheaper and less qualified alternatives (a ‘reserve army of labour’ as Marx may have had it) and put more downward pressure on the terms and conditions of those in our care, neatly creating a vicious circle that potentially dooms us all. It is a Disposable School Staff approach whose acronym, DSS, should give any Headteacher worrying about their job pause for thought. For every colleague we ‘move on’ we sow, among the remaining colleagues who witness how we do it and how often we do it, the seeds that will be harvested when we too are being considered in terms of our capability. Should that time come for me, I’d like to know that I had their support, but I need to earn that along the way. 

It’s not just in terms of the economics where we are in danger of becoming a pale shadow of football management, it’s in terms of our tactics too. I wasn’t at ASCL’s conference but I suspect that some of the wisest words spoken there came from the new head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, who reminded us of the dangers of top-down, trickle-down leadership from her perspective. 

One of the self-serving aspects of aligning ourselves (however unwillingly or unwittingly) to football managers has been in our increased willingness to impose “personal prejudices” on how our colleagues run their classrooms and departments. Or perhaps worse than this. Perhaps not our personal prejudices but those that we assume to come from Ofsted and the DfE: prejudices that have a huge impact on the workload of colleagues. 

We should take her words at face value and avoid thinking about ourselves as football managers. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we need to align ourselves alongside our colleagues – we are just employees too in the end – to consider if we have more in common with Football Fan Syndrome (FFS). There are a few models of collective football club ownership out there, perhaps not amongst the giants of the game, to give us hope that there is a better way of doing things that mobilise the hopes, talents and energies of the many for the many. Failing that, there are many more football clubs who keep the communication channels between them and fans as open and bidirectional as possible. Surely this is a minimum expectation we should have of ourselves, and yet there are too many stories of this not being the case to mention here, or to bear. They are not stories designed to attract “the brightest and best” into teaching or, sadly, into school leadership. 

Once again, the new HCMI is instructive:


I wonder how many Headteachers make this same statement, minus themselves, to the staff they work with. More to the point, I wonder how many mean it and align their deeds with their words in the face of all of those accountability pressures. 

As I said earlier, I do understand and fully empathise with those using the phrase ‘Football Manager Syndrome’, particularly those who have themselves been ‘moved on’ by overzealous governing bodies functioning as if they were the Chairman of a football club, unaware of how longitudinal the sustained success of a school is by necessity. But the metaphor is a poor one and the mythologies emanating from its overuse, misuse and abuse are both profound and, increasingly, all around. It’s not just Headteachers who suffer from our adoption of FMS as a ‘badge of honour’, it’s every single one of us employed in education and, ultimately, every one of our students. As Amanda Spielman rightly points out…


We need to challenge our own use of the phrase ‘Football Manager Syndrome’ (I won’t lie to you and say that it has never slipped from my lips) and we need to challenge each other when we do so too, perhaps by using the acronym FFS. After all the best managers are, first and foremost, fans of their team. If we are going to suffer the angst of leadership, let’s at least do so communally. 

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