School Improvement – lessons from the Royal Belgian Football Association

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Perhaps the most common analogy used in recent years to describe school improvement is the marginal gains approach employed by Dave Brailsford to transform British cycling. Marginal gains works on the premise that considerable rises in overall performance levels can be achieved by aggregating multiple smaller improvements. It relies heavily on sophisticated data systems to identity what are often microscopic areas for development, and then uses well-informed coaches to work with individuals on realising these tweaks.

The analogy proved popular because of the perceived similarities between sport and education – both domains consist of learners striving to maximize performance working within complex environments increasingly driven by data to set and measure achievement. This synergy, coupled with the success of British riders in Team Sky and at the London Olympics, conspired to make marginal gains a useful metaphor for school leaders.

I wonder, however, whether another, different sporting comparison might provide a more accurate account of the work many schools are now undertaking to improve outcomes, particularly in relation to the Growth Mindset model articulated by Carol Dweck. The analogy I have in mind is the work of the Belgian Football Association in developing their national team to be amongst the best in the world. I can only apologise now to those who abhor football and who are still smarting from wall-to-wall coverage of the recent World Cup. All I can say is that the football is really secondary to the lessons learnt from the scope and vision of the reforms that have been taking place in Belgium.

La vision de formation de l’URBSFA

Despite a population of only 11m, with just 34 professional clubs competing across two leagues, Belgium has managed to produce something of a golden generation of footballers. The national team recently reached the World Cup quarter final, where, aside from Ghana, they had the youngest squad at Brazil with an average age of just over 25. Belgium has a host of talented players at Europe’s elite clubs, including Everton’s Romelu Lukaku and Chelsea’ Eden Hazard. Many of these players are nowhere near their prime. So how did such a tiny country with little tradition of footballing success (aside from a fourth placed finish in the1986 World Cup) manage to produce such a crop of exciting young footballers, and what lessons might schools learn from the successes they have achieved so far and hope to enjoy in the future?

A large part of the answer to this question comes in the form of Michel Sablon, the Belgium Football Association’s technical director. It was his vision for the radical overhaul of football in his country submitted to their executive body in 2006 that provided the blueprint for the team of 2014. Sablon’s vision is a remarkable example of root and branch reform, and key aspects of its philosophy correspond with a lot of the developmental work schools are currently engaged in. This 2012 presentation, focusing on the development of the youth system, provides some wonderful insights into how Belgium went from World Cup also-rans in 1998 to World Cup quarter finalists this year with an international ranking of 5.

What I particularly like about La vision de formation de l’URBSFA is its recognition that these things take time – that to really bring about change there are no short term fixes and you need a willingness to sacrifice immediate success for longer term achievement. Despite the immediate pressures that many schools are under, I think there is a lesson here for leaders to try to retain a sense of the bigger picture: of course, do what you can in the here and now, but recognise that real change takes time and patience. At some point, there has to be a commitment to the long term, which may sometimes come into conflict with short-term priorities.

Local contexts; global influences

The vision pitched to the Belgian F.A. by Sablon and other influential figures, such as the Youth team coach Bob Browaeys, was informed by some of the best examples of football development programmes from around the world. Influences included the philosophies and training methods of countries, such as The Netherlands, France and Germany, as well as of leading European clubs like Ajax and Barcelona. But the Belgium model did not just replicate the work of others; it looked at what was needed for footballers to flourish in Belgium, given their unique set of circumstances.

Eight football training colleges, known as Topsport schools, were set up across the country, where youngsters aiming to become professional footballers not only received the education they would need to achieve success off the field, but also the most talented individuals received extra training and opportunities like run outs with the first team. If you read through the presentation on the youth development plans, it is clear just how switched on the Belgian F.A. really are to the reality that the vast majority of youngsters wont make it to professional level. There are repeated references to the wholeness of the child, and to, dare I say, instilling a sense of fun into learning. Anderlect’s youth director Jean Kindermans is clear about the imperative of education beyond the football pitch and how ‘a degree at school will give you the opportunity to find a job, to be a human being with intellectual skills.’

Formation, formation, formation

One of the most striking aspects of the Belgian F.A.’s improvement model is the widespread adoption of one single playing formation across all the teams for which the governing body has responsibility as well as the youth teams of the top clubs in the country like Anderlecht and Standard Liege. Every youth team up to and including the national team plays a 4-3-3 system. A significant part of the training that the players go through between the ages of 7 and 17 is on tactics and how to function in a team that plays to this set formation. Belgium clearly has a plan for how they want to play and they set up all their teams throughout the country the same way to ensure a shared understanding.

When I first read about this approach I was taken by the similarities between what the Belgian F.A. have done to improve their national team and the plans that schools like ours are currently implementing to improve student learning. For example, in preparation for the new assessment model at KS3 a number of our departments have stripped back their curricula in the belief that less is more. P.E. is reducing the number of sports they teach because they do not think students get to experience or enjoy anything in any real depth, whilst English intend to teach only the essay and composition, eschewing other forms to master the main facets of literary expression.

‘The duel’

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As well as formation, there is a significant focus in Belgian youth football on developing a certain playing style. Unlike our poor, insipid F.A., the Belgian federation wants its footballers to have an identity. Central to cultivating this is the idea of ‘the duel’ – they want a new breed of footballers with excellent dribbling skills and the confidence to beat opponents in one on one situations. This is no pipedream: every aspect of coaching from individual work on the training ground to in game play is geared to instilling this level of technical prowess. Before youngsters learn anything about tactics or formations they spend two years getting comfortable with the ball, and they are always playing matches (in small teams so everyone has lots of contact with the ball). Tackling is frowned upon and there is no place in the national set up for this kind of thing.

To my mind, this is deliberate practice writ large across a nation of young aspiring footballers. By settling on what it is they want to achieve, the Belgium F.A. are able to direct their resources into breaking down the overall goal into manageable chunks that are practiced diligently with each different team (or department). I am currently in the midst of designing an INSET programme for teaching staff at our school on literacy. Because literacy, particularly writing, is the most important aspect of students’ learning that we need to develop, we are putting in place what is necessary to ensure that we are all confident users of language in the classroom. I will blog about these plans later, but suffice to say that, as with the Belgian notion of the duel and the 4-3-3 formation, we are looking to define an approach to teaching writing that is consistently applied and practised across the school so that students experience the same methodology and metalanguage.

Growth Mindset

Reading the Belgian vision it becomes clear how embedded Growth Mindset is throughout the organisation and national set up. In an interview for the Guardian newspaper Sablon explains how he asked the president of one club he was about to make a presentation to if they could remove the younger players’ rankings from the wall before he started. He explains how rankings are wrong and that ‘the development of your players is the first objective.’ The detailed plans make continual reference to learning being a ‘continuous process’ and the teaching of mental processes, such as motivation, self-control and discipline, are explicit.

Another aspect of Growth Mindset is the notion of failure. Despite recent refutation of the efficacy of Dweck’s findings, I remain convinced that failing and learning from it is an important aspect of becoming a successful learner. For the Belgium national team to get to a world ranking of 5 they have clearly had to endure and learn from their own fair share of disappointment. They failed to get out of the group stages of Euro 2000, an event for which they were co-hosts, and as Sablon explains they had to stick to the blueprint despite losing matches. He was told by one official, ‘you pay more attention to the playing system than to be qualified.’ But in both instances, failure seems to have helped contribute towards later success. The money from being co-hosts, for instance, enabled sizeable investment in youth infrastructure, and persevering with 4-3-3, despite losing some matches, eventually led to greater levels of mastery and in turn more wins.

Research based

I could go on. I have not yet touched upon the value the Belgium F.A. place on developing high-quality coaches, or the emphasis that they place on scientific research to underpin their ideas. I will leave you with the quotation below taken from one of the slides on the youth presentation of 2012. I have tried to source it, but have without success. Whilst I don’t know where it comes from, I do think it speaks volumes of an organisation that has thought long and hard about the best way to bring about continual improvement, one that understands the environment required to bring about success and that has the courage and strength of character to see it through. I think that in this mentality there are a lot of lessons for school leaders and educators in general.

“An acquired skill in the application of certain activities (training session) can only be transferred into a new condition (the match) when there exists a maximum of resemblances between the two situations.”

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2 thoughts on “School Improvement – lessons from the Royal Belgian Football Association

  1. Great post. I’m an Irish NQT finding my way in the UK . I really recognise the analogy, having thought about the same ideas regarding player development and FC Barcelona.

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