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The beautiful game

World Cup fever and the nation's love of soccer provide a fertile learning ground for enthusiastic youngsters, writes Andy Farquarson.

Football's World Cup is the hot topic from primary playgrounds to sixth-form common rooms. This year the first game kicks off in Seoul, South Korea, on May 31, and the final is on June 30 in Yokohama, Japan.

Given most youngsters' interest in the "beautiful game", it can be a highly effective learning aid. One of the best-known national schemes is the Department for Education and Skills "Playing for Success" initiative. This partners local education authorities and local football clubs to improve literacy, numeracy and IT skills among key stage 2 and 3 pupils.

Football becomes both the context and motivator. Playing for Success now involves over 40 clubs, many of which have set up dedicated study centres.

The scheme isn't restricted to the big Premiership names. Second Division Queens Park Rangers has a very successful relationship with Hammersmith and Fulham education authority.

QPR's scheme is managed by qualified teacher Kevin McCooke. The club has set up a well-appointed study centre at its Loftus Road ground, with 12 desktop computers and six laptops. "We aim for a teacher-pupil ratio of one to four," says Mr McCooke, "so youngsters get undivided assistance. We also encourage them to learn for themselves and from each other. As well as adult supervisors, we have half-a-dozen local youngsters who act as volunteer assistants and first-team players. Club staff also participate.

"The club has been very supportive. This is one of the poorest and most socially deprived boroughs in London, and the scheme has given hundreds of pupils a real educational boost. In the last three years, the centre has helped over a thousand pupils - I believe we have made a real difference."

Pupils from nearby Old Oak primary have certainly benefited, says headteacher Maddy Parker: "Attending the QPR scheme helps support the youngsters during the transition between Years 6 and 7. They enjoy using the computers, taking part in quizzes, touring the stadium and carrying out money tasks in the club's shop."

The Playing for Success initiative concentrates on pupils from Year 6 to Year 9. The weekly sessions are as popular with girls as boys, Mr McCooke says. "We try to build pupils' self-esteem and confidence, as well as enhancing their learning skills.

"During school holidays, we use the centre for other teaching initiatives for local youngsters. It is also used for other IT training, including a package for unemployed 16-24 year-olds."

QPR runs its own football in the community programme. Players, coaches and club staff visit schools - from inner-city Paddington to suburban Uxbridge - offering coaching and other incentives to academic achievement. This has mutual benefits. Scouts have secured at least one first team signing through the club.

Like many other league sides, QPR also welcomes school visits and tours from other areas of the country. Various packages are on offer, including meet-the-team sessions, use of the study centre, and, of course, a walk through the tunnel to get a player's eye view of the pitch.

In the Premier League, Blackburn Rovers has one of the largest schools programmes in the UK. The club's education department has five full-time staff, two of them qualified teachers. The extensive facilities at the Ewood Park ground include three fully-equipped classrooms and 40 internet-linked computers.

More than 4,000 pupils use the facilities every year, as well as a large number of older students and adult learners. The club has strong links with Blackburn College and is particularly proud of the joint student mentoring scheme.

"Blackburn Rovers was one of the first clubs to really get involved in education," says the club's education manager Gill Kinloch. "Rovers' programmes have been growing for over 11 years. We now cater for every age group, and our various programmes cover every aspect of the national curriculum too. Our activity days and media studies are especially popular.

"As well as taking part in 'Playing for Success' we have our own flourishing Learning Through Football scheme. There are a range of other programmes too, such as science days, team building, after-school classes, and very successful summer schools.

"We also offer inter-generational learning. Parents and children can come and work together to improve basic skills, such as literacy and numeracy."

Blackburn Rovers educational initiatives are not restricted to its local catchment area. "We regard this as a nationwide resource and schools from all over the country visit us," says Ms Kinloch.

"We are open throughout the year and have space for several groups at a time. There can be 90 or more pupils studying on any given day.

"We are planning a new building, which would add two more rooms. We always tailor what we offer to visitors' needs. We often ask teachers what they want out of their time here.

"Children are obviously very excited by the World Cup," adds Mrs Kinloch, "so we are planning a number of special events and courses for 2002."

Many clubs also establish educational partnerships with other organisations, as well as local authorities. Manchester United has teamed up with the city's youth hostel to offer a two-night educational package.

This can be linked to key stages 2, 3 and 4. There are specific football activities, including training sessions with Manchester United coaches and a visit to the club's museum.

But the residential course includes non-soccer educational activities too, such as a visit to Manchester science museum.

Contact For Playing For Success, contact your nearest premiership or league club, or phone the Football Association, 0870 0012345. Web: www.the-fa.org.uk The YHA-MUFC package. Tel: 0161 839 9960. Web: www.yhamanchester.org.uk Blackburn Rovers' education dept. Tel: 01254 296294. Web: www.rovers.co.uk Queens Park Rangers. Tel: 0208 7402529. Web: www.qpr.co.uk Similar attractions National Football Museum, next to Preston North End's stadium.Tel: 01772 908442. Web: www.nationalfootballmuseum.org.uk The Scottish Football Museum, next to Hampden Park stadium, Glasgow. Tel: 0141 616 6100. Web: www.scottishfootballmuseum.org.uk Manchester Utd. Tel: 0161 868 8631. Web: www.manutd.com Arsenal in Islington has a large museum open Fridays. Tel: 0207 704 4000.Web: www.arsenal.com

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