On the ball about talent spotting

April 5, 1996

Universities have a lot to learn from football clubs in the art of recruitment, argue Alan Jenkins and Andrew Ward. The Association of University Teachers executive argues that good university teaching is a matter of pot luck. It says that . . . 'no evidence of teaching ability is required to enter the profession'." (THES, November 10, 1995).

Academics have good reason to assume that their institutions select staff more efficiently than football clubs. Higher education institutions are managed by highly-educated staff, with ready access to research and scholarship on selection procedures. In contrast, as any casual Match of the Day viewer can testify, professional soccer managers possess expensive suits and suntans, but do not appear to have the intellectual acumen of, say, university vice chancellors or department heads.

Furthermore academics who attend matches can sometimes be heard to comment "what a load of rubbish" at the expensive donkeys soccer clubs sign to entertain us.

When we read newspaper stories of how some players are recruited there seems to be evidence to explain this incompetence. For example, Bobby Gould, when manager of Coventry City, watched Stuart Pearce, then playing for Wealdstone, for only ten minutes one Saturday, leaving the game after watching him make one crunching tackle. The next Monday, Gould paid Pounds 25,000 for Pearce, then an unknown non-league player. He now plays for England and captained them last week.

This season, Aston Villa manager Brian Little has been widely criticised for spending Pounds 2 million on the Serbian player Savo Milosevic on the basis of watching him on video. Many commentators and fans have derided Little for never going to see Milosevic play before he bought him.

However, even in these two cases recruitment was shaped by watching players do the job for which they were being hired; thus, as a full back, Stuart Pearce is paid to make crunching tackles. By comparison higher education institutions generally select teaching staff on the basis of an interview, a technique which is of limited validity as a predictor of future job effectiveness.

Usually, in universities, no direct evidence of one of the central skills of the job, ie, teaching ability, is obtained. Thus we argue that higher education has more reason to change its recruitment methods than football clubs. Here we outline some of the procedures used in professional soccer and suggest how they could be adapted in higher education.

The most important point is that soccer clubs recruit on the basis of direct evidence of the job. Players' performances are on public display and can be observed by other clubs, and there is video evidence of all league club players. Clearly it is not so easy for higher education recruiters to observe teaching staff at other institutions. What they could do, though, is recognise the limited value/validity of their current selection procedures. They could require all candidates to provide video recordings of a range of classroom settings. They could require all candidates selected for "interview" to do a number of presentations to students. They could require candidates to send examples of teaching materials, course booklets, etc. They could continually ask, "how can we get direct evidence of this person's teaching ability and potential?" When deciding whether to buy a particular player, soccer clubs will have him watched a number of times by independent observers. Each will be asked to rate the player for the vacancy the club is seeking to fill. The players' skills are assessed - kicking, heading, balance, stamina, reading the game - and these results are then analysed and discussed.

Institutions could adapt this principle by specifying the characteristics they are seeking and ensuring that selection procedures give candidates the opportunity to display these characteristics. Trained independent observers should judge the candidates and there should be sufficient agreement (ie, reliability) between the observers. Soccer teams will not judge an individual by their performance in one isolated game. Even when Bobby Gould "selected" Stuart Pearce he did so on the basis of separate reports from a number of scouts who had previously watched Pearce. The crunching tackle Gould observed confirmed the reliability and validity of these judgements.

Clubs will want to ensure that any one performance is not out of character. They will have a player watched at home (encouraged by the warm support of the fans), and away; when his team are winning and when they are losing; and when there is little at stake (away to Hartlepool Reserves on a cold wet February night is a good test of character and determination).

Scouts will stand in the crowd and listen to what spectators say about the player. They will talk to people who know his character. Managers will also know his injury and illness history and how many games he has missed in the last five seasons. Particularly with young inexperienced players, if they are uncertain about fitness, ability or character they will invite a player for a month's trial.

Some institutions, recognising the limitations of the interview, have started to introduce procedures that directly test elements of the job. For example, they require applicants to give a presentation to upper level students and/or a seminar to staff on their research interests.

But we also need to see applicants give a lecture to 450 students in a compulsory first-year class first thing on a Monday morning and teach Gas Fitters 3 on Friday evening - if this is part of the job. We should certainly look for direct evidence across a range of teaching contexts. We acknowledge that in selecting players soccer failures are moved on quickly, whereas recruitment mistakes haunt universities for many years. If universities do not improve recruitment methods, we may hear chants of "what a load of rubbish", from students at the institution and employers as students graduate and seek employment.

Alan Jenkins works in the Educational Methods Unit at Oxford Brookes University: Andrew Ward, a former university careers counsellor, is co-author (with Rogan Taylor ) of Kicking and Screaming: An Oral History of Football in England.

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