Model thinking in education 1: ‘Success to the successful’ in career progression AKA why are there so many PE teachers in positions of leadership?

I think this blog will be the first of many blogs on the use of models and system archetypes in school settings. 

Daniel H Kims System Archetypes represent a powerful way of diagraming out systems and their competing factors (#dualcoding). These kinds of generalised systems appear in many areas of life. I’ve always been fascinated by the complex nature of education and peoples attempts to simplify it. The decisions people make in education are so varied and the factors that lead to success so wide ranging, that any simplification will suffer from generalisability issues. However, without simplification we are unable to share our understanding with others. Ultimately, if all schools are to provide the best education possible we need to acknowledge that generalised models, while imperfect, are a useful way of interrogating our school systems and trying to optimise them.

I’m going to start of with a relatively simple model and a relatively benign issue: Who gets promoted most often in schools. 

More directly I am going to use the ‘success to the successful’ model to explain why there is a higher proportion of PE teachers in senior leadership, relative to their proportion of total teachers.

PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not an attempt to have a passive aggressive dig at PE teachers. I am not saying those PE specialists in senior leadership do not deserve their roles, I’m sure they do. I have been line managed by many PE specialists over the years and they all have done a great job. I just want to analyse the possible cause and effects that lead to the observed phenomena.

Hang on! Is there an abundance of PE SLT?

My short answer is ‘I think so’. I tried really hard to get the real data. I tried using the data set used by Prof. Becky Allen the EEF and also the census data from 2020. It was not very successful. I do however have this twitter poll. 

For the purpose of this blog I think it is safe to assume that there is a disproportionately high number of SLT that come from a PE specialist background. If you disagree and can provide me with the data then I welcome the chance to learn more.

Is it because PE specialists are just better teachers?

This idea isn’t completely wrong in my opinion. Evolution and natural selection permeate all aspects of culture, not just biology. PE is a highly competitive field. Getting onto the PGCE and securing a full time NQT post are both much more demanding than in any other subject. This creates a selective pressure on the system and means that I think it is perfectly valid to claim that the average quality of a PE specialist in terms of interpersonal skills and native teaching ability is higher. But I don’t think this explains the gap entirely.

Success to the successful.

The ‘success to the successful’ model is a simple one. 

Essentially, If one person is even a smidge ahead of another at the start of their career this model predicts that they will receive more resources, training and opportunities. When looked at in retrospect it appears like their performance has warranted all of these, when in fact their performance is a result of the increased resources and a smidge of luck. 

What does this have to do with PE teachers?

I propose this model is a contributing factor to the increased proportion of PE teachers in senior positions. The nature of PE as a subject means it is easier to look like a better teacher early in your career. Your relationships are strong with most of the more challenging students, who in my experience often love sport. You have no examinations in KS3 to prepare for and there is a propensity for the curriculum to be highly BTEC focussed. These issues are then magnified by the initial quality of the person, due to the selective pressures of the training process. The result is a PE teacher who is more able to take advantage of resources. Maybe they get invited onto a ‘good to outstanding’ training course? Maybe they get an early pastoral leadership role, or asked to deliver some CPD on engaging boys using competition?  

Hang on! What if PE teachers just have the right generic leadership skills to be successful?

This could be true. Maybe the crucible of athletic performance and teamwork imbue sports people with these generic leadership and interpersonal skills are really important in leadership. I have been on many courses (including the NPQSL) which still prioritise these generic skills. So if they are able to demonstrate those skills early in their career this would be the initial difference that creates the ‘success to the successful’ conditions. This idea proves that the system works as predicted. Obviously there are many non-PE staff that play sports and participate in other hobbies which build these skills, but possibly they have less chance to demonstrate them. In the grand scheme of things I do not believe generic leadership skills are that rare and that important. Once in the role, decision making, analytical thinking and some degree of empathy and a large dollop of expertise seem to be more important. 

Maybe PE teachers just get better outcomes?

I’ve always found it hard to swallow the idea that student outcomes are the result of a teacher’s performance. There is face validity to the idea that a good teacher delivers good outcomes. However how much they improve the result and what a ‘good teacher’ is are very complex things to unpack. I think it’s really hard to separate the confounding effects on student outcomes, especially when comparing across subjects. For example it is my personal opinion that any MFL teacher must use borderline witchcraft to get pass grades out of a class of disinterested boys. Maybe I’m stereotyping and projecting my own school experience here (I got a C in french against my will),  but I think the logic stands. Two teachers of the same objective quality will get different results depending on the subject and school they teach in. This idea permeates the whole of education and is too big to do justice in this blog. Needless to say, the conditions of PE might be favoured in this approach.

Maybe they just have more time?

Lots of people seem to think this is why PE teacher get ahead. I’m not so sure. Early in my teaching career I used to also coach basketball. I’m a decent coach and we had a girls team that did a great job and played in a national league. Afterschool fixtures and clubs are a huge drain on time, so I think this argument that they have less marking etc.. is probably unfounded. 


I think there is evidence to suggest that the ‘success to the successful’ system permeates career progression in schools. I think the high proportion of PE teachers in leadership provides some evidence that this is true. I think PE teachers have an easier path to demonstrating their abilities than other subjects and this results in them receiving more opportunities to progress and build their CV. 

So what?

Even if everything I’ve said is true, the only way to prevent this blog being an entire waste of time for us both is if we can come up with some actions. Kim recommends the following 

I think systemic change is hard and bullet 1 is pretty much impossible to move. At the end of the day there is probably only one vacancy that needs to be filled.

I think bullet point 2 is a really good point. When it comes to opportunities for CPD and other resources these are best deployed broadly so all can access. A good example of this will be the Early Career Framework, whereby all 2nd year teachers will get a training curriculum that will help them develop whatever their initial ability. I think collegiate CPD also helps address the third bullet somewhat. This could also be helped by offering voluntary roles alongside post holders helping on a specific project. I have often been told that in teaching “You work the job, before you get paid to do it” which gives some credence to the value of experience in career progression.

The final bullet is the big one for our example. We need to look very closely at our selection criteria for job roles and how we interview the candidates. We need to not only consider the criteria we use but also the weighting we give things. Is it fair to compare the outcomes of a music teacher from a leafy green grammar school with a history teacher from an urban comprehensive by looking at just their outcomes? 

We also need to carefully consider the tasks candidates perform at the interview. Will these tasks effectively allow them to demonstrate the expertise and personal traits we need them to have to be successful in this role? If not how can we standardise them? For example, if the ability to judge the quality of a lesson and provide feedback is needed, can this be achieved better by getting them all to observe the same recorded lesson? Do we provide them with enough data to create a strategic plan in advance? Do we create a range of scenarios to simulate the breadth and depth of the role? 

The more specific we can make our job description and resist the urge to use undefinable qualities like ‘visionary communicator’ the more likely we are to be able to identify the best person for the job, no matter what their subject specialism.

I just want to clarify I am not saying PE teachers should not be in SLT, just that you would expect if all things were equal they would be a representative sample in line with their frequency within the teaching profession.

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