01 June 2021

The Monday Briefing: Can't Buy Me Love

The Monday Briefing: Cant Buy Me Love

My home town of Brentford was quite the place to be on Saturday of last week, with residents enjoying a carnival atmosphere. There was a palpable sense of delight that the local football team had won the Championship play-off final, the ‘richest game in soccer’, to become promoted to the English top flight for the first time since 1947. I can’t profess to being a Brentford fan myself - I follow my local club in Scotland whom my father played for, East Fife - but nonetheless, I was really happy to see that they had completed a long term plan to make it to the Premier League. They are the team located geographically closest to the College, one of our Year 12 students is a development trialist there, and they are a very likable team, renowned as a club run the right way.

Anyone who speaks with me at length will know how besotted I am with the sport, it’s omnipresence having been part of my life as far back as I can remember. Whether playing, coaching or spectating, it has been a constant, and carries many cherished memories, representing my school and university football teams, and winning trophies as a coach with two different schools. Seeing so many Brentford supporters in such joyous mood, particularly given their enforced absence from seeing their team over the last season and a half, was very pleasing - it returned at least a partial sense of normality following the pandemic, albeit for a few hours.

Given the limited nature of Brentford’s resources, meagre in comparison to many other teams in the league, their success has been remarkable. They have typified the term ‘punching above their weight’ through hard work, long term planning, a novel approach to recruitment based on statistical analysis and, perhaps above all, creating an environment where players can thrive in a spirit of togetherness. Bypassing a results driven approach for one based on expected goals rather than actual goals, they have had faith in their unique methods, instilled by gambling company owner and lifelong fan Matthew Benham and his team which includes Rasmus Ankersen, a footballer turned entrepreneur. They have found the right coaches, people and players to fit their system, and have devoted themselves to it. It has now paid off handsomely. Most strikingly within all of this, they have sold on a great deal of the talent which they have nurtured for a profit approaching £150 million. They have become one of the few truly sustainable football clubs in the modern era, and have been heralded as an example to others who ‘dare to dream’ of such success.

One may ask: what can the College learn from the Brentford approach?

The answer, undoubtedly, is a great deal.

I wrote a blog a few weeks back about recruitment in education, how difficult it can be, and how one must maintain dedication to the standards one aspires to for the College as a whole. Brentford FC is a fine example of this in an industry, football, where there can be too many options to choose from. "Recruitment is about being less and less wrong," Ankersen says. "It's not about being right all the time. Every player you sign is a risk, and you just try and do your due diligence properly." Every member of staff we recruit is interviewed with the improvement of the College in mind, and I look back on every appointment made since becoming Principal with a sense that it was the right decision in appointing those who were successful. In our hunt for a Physics teacher, we went through a similar process. We took our time to ensure that every box was ticked within our criteria, even if it took longer to get the right candidate. Ankersen also believes that “most companies spend two per cent of their time recruiting and 75 per cent managing their recruitment mistakes.” Schools simply do not have time to remedy these errors where football clubs may have the ability to splash out on a new striker or get someone in on loan. One could argue that recruitment is of more critical importance in the education sector.

Recruitment is just one part of the process, and it is vital that staff are looked after when they are welcomed into the College. Brentford do this extremely well. Their ‘Moneyball’ approach of statistical data analysis to identify talent makes many headlines, but it is in creating the right club philosophy that makes a more lasting effect. Midfielder Josh Dasilva, formerly of Arsenal, revealed earlier this season that “the culture we’ve got going on here is so good.” “Everyone’s on board, everyone’s looking in the right direction. Everyone that works here is just a good person. And it shows on the pitch. Good people do good things.” I’ve taken great pains to work towards embedding such a culture at the College: reducing staff compulsory hours; increasing continuing professional development; improving communication and consulting all stakeholders when big decisions are to be made. “As soon as you come to the club, you improve,” Dasilva added, and this must be the mindset of everyone in education, whether at the College, or in a wider sense.

In terms of students, we have a similar approach. We do not have set entry requirements, and base admissions on thorough interviews with all potential applicants, where key staff are in attendance to really get a good handle of the character of each student. Where they have the right mentality - to improve and be the best they can be - they are welcomed to the College. It is then that the real work starts: to build relationships; to differentiate according to student need; to build confidence, and with it, performance; As Head of Recruitment at Brentford Lee Dykes states, “recruitment is only the start of the player-building process. Everyone has to pull together to continue to build a player over the next one, two or maybe even three years. Once we've signed a player there's already a development plan that's been constructed, with all departments contributing to that." Each student who comes to us is vital to us, and we make it our priority to get to know them as well as we can: to know their strengths and weaknesses; to make it our business to get the very best from them; to identify issues and act decisively where these arise.

What has really made Brentford’s success stand out, is that they’ve had to do so this year following the huge setback of losing the play-off final last year to Fulham. Following the game, Head Coach Thomas Frank, knowing the resilience within his side, defiantly stated that “Tomorrow the sun will rise again and we will move forward, learn from it and bounce back.” Two of the side’s best players were sold for huge profits, something which could easily have upset the balance of the side, but long-term plans had been in place, including the identification of potential replacements, the best example of which record-breaking season 2020-2021 top scorer, Ivan Toney, brought in for a fraction of the cost received for sold assets Ollie Watins and Said Benrahma.

They were not going to throw money at the issue, rather, they would trust in their principles. Midfielder Christian Norgaard recalls “Last year we knew certain players might want to leave us after the play-off final and we did sell two of our best players but we managed to replace them and put on another fantastic season. In a club like Brentford, which is so well managed from the top down to us players, you expect us to be at the top of the Championship again next year if we don’t manage to get up. No matter which players we will sell, I’m sure that we can replace them.” Confidence that challenges can be overcome is fundamental to the approach, and we share that sentiment at Ealing.

I’ve looked to shift the College to a more stable, long term approach, just like Benham has at Brentford. In the past, too much strain and pressure was put into an unrealistic recruitment period, where substantial funds were thrown at desperate advertising to attract new recruits. It was a scattergun approach which provided as many ‘misses’ as it did ‘hits’ in terms of finding the right student body. We are now more forward thinking, forging strong links with the local community. We are more transparent, open and confident in all aspects of our approach. I know that our focused, relationship-based programme of individually tailored support for all of our students is the right one for Ealing Independent College and is transformative for young people.

I feel that, more than ever before, we know who we are: a College which provides an excellent standard of education and wellbeing for the young people who attend, inspiring and empowering them to become the very best that they can be.

Like Brentford FC, we have a great deal to be excited about in the years to come.

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