Could the football transfer process work in the regulated world of FE? It’s worth a try, says Sam Parrett

Watching my husband glued to the TV for 24 hours during the last few days of the football transfer window made me think about how different further education might be if our employment law framework was similar to that of a football club.

The football transfer process, with its last-minute medical checks and signings, are usually a twice-yearly marital endurance test in the Parrett household. But last month we were on a cruise around the Baltics and Scandinavia, and an interesting debate took place about the wage bills, transfer costs, strengths and weaknesses of players, teams and the future prospects as the new season began.

As an FE principal who came up through the human resources route, I began to wonder what lessons we could learn for my sector.

In football, high-performing players are transferred to different clubs to strengthen their forward or defensive teams. How could that translate in FE? Could we have a more open culture where staff were able to change jobs more easily during “transfer windows”? If we had flexibility over salaries and the ability to pay our highest-performing staff more, recognising and rewarding them for exceptional performance as they do in football, a market-led model might improve retention and outcomes.

Similarly, just as football players are loaned to other clubs, could we send staff out on loan, or perhaps a secondment, to another college to broaden their skills and experience and add strength and experience to weaker organisations? Or maybe allow free transfers – in the same way that football clubs transfer a player out or recruit a free transfer on a swap basis.

Imagine if we principals could talk to each other in the same way; for example, if our demand for English and maths teachers is reducing at a time when we need business lecturers. Could we approach a neighbouring college with a reverse problem and, through consultation and negotiation with the individuals concerned, transfer staff so that each college has the staff with the right expertise?

Senior management could swap roles to support career development.

The benefits are not just the obvious reductions in employment agency and placement fees, but also to staff and organisational development.

The similarities between the world of football and FE include league tables, constant press speculation and regulatory interference.

The possibility of a more dynamic and voluntary arrangement with genuine brokering and movement of staff, cooperation between colleges, college groups and even schools could be hugely beneficial to individuals and local communities.

We could see less restructuring and redundancy through better brokerage of employment at a local level and more stability in our backyard. This sort of collaboration and brokerage system within and across the sector could even work at principal level, giving senior management the opportunity for role swaps to support career development, such as deputies trying out the principal role.

As I pondered this approach while watching a sunset, I also considered the potential drawbacks: the manager and player commodity market is much more transient and less stable than the employment protection and security of our current employment terms and conditions. For example there would also be a risk of pay costs escalating, although this is something we could control in a more dynamic market environment.

It’s an idea worth trying. So I’m throwing down the gauntlet to see if anyone else would like to join my college in seeing if we can create a more dynamic systems-led approach to staff recruitment that helps our staff development too.