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Charlie tackles his literacy problems

When training has finished for the day, professional footballer Charlie Oatway does not head home like the rest of his team-mates.

Instead, he attends the study centre at his club's stadium to improve his literacy and numeracy.

Alongside his team's supporters who have difficulties with reading, writing and maths, he is studying for a level one (GCSE grade D-G equivalent) qualification.

Charlie Oatway is captain of Brighton and Hove Albion, the Championship club that is involved with Heading for Success, a new project to exploit the power and popularity of football to attract people into education.

Mr Oatway, 32, said he was let down badly by the school system and is now having to make up for lost time.

At the launch of Heading for Success at the FA headquarters in London, he said: "When I was 11, I was sent to special school, but most of the pupils there had physical difficulties rather than learning difficulties.

"The education authorities couldn't find anywhere suitable to put me, so from the age of 12, I just didn't go to school and I spent all my time playing football.

"My reading is very poor. If I am lucky I can just about read some of the sports pages in The Sun. But the improvements I have made have been a big boost for my self-confidence."

He says improving his literacy is vital to his career goal of becoming a football coach, which requires him to pass exams.

The midfielder, who has a broken leg, appeared at the launch on crutches to share a platform with skills minister Phil Hope and sports minister Richard Caborn.

He won the longest applause when he spoke about how he is beginning to be able to help his four children aged between three and 14 with their homework.

He said: "I got to a stage when the kids were asking me to help them with homework. I would just have to send them to their mum, which was horrible for me but also for them.

"I knew about the club's study centre and I just gave it a go. There is a brilliant atmosphere in there that is informal and relaxed."

Brighton is one of 10 clubs to team up with the Government to sign on fans in Heading for Success, which aims to replicate the Playing for Success programme aimed at attracting school children to learn at football clubs.

The project will use football in its teaching methods, encouraging students to learn maths by understanding transfer fees or the battle to avoid relegation, or improving reading and writing by producing match reports or analysing commentary.

Mr Hope said: "Working with football clubs is a great way to reach out to people who might otherwise feel awkward about returning to learning.

"Now these first 10 clubs and learning providers have committed to the programme, we plan to sign up more for the start of the new season."

The Government's Skills for Life programme, which aims to get 1.5 million adults to achieve a basic skills qualification by 2007, has been criticised for only targeting the "low-hanging fruit", those easiest to reach.

David Sherlock, chief executive of the Adult Learning Inspectorate, said in a report last year that, although 750,000 new qualifications have been awarded in numeracy or literacy, half were gained by 16 to 18-year-olds already enrolled on college courses.

Mr Hope said that this project, and others such as the Get On campaign, have been designed to reach those higher up the tree.

"It is a national scandal that more than five million people in Britain have no qualifications. Around one in six adults lacks the literacy skills of an 11-year-old and almost half lack these levels of functional numeracy," said the minister.

Former England international footballer Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of football development, said: "Fans have a great loyalty to their club, and it is great to see some of the top clubs using this to help improve the literacy and numeracy skills in their local community.

"We hope this initiative will help people realise that it's never too late to learn as an adult."

Clubs involved in the project are Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Newcastle United, Charlton Athletic and Wigan Athletic, from the Premier League, and Football League sides Norwich City, Leicester City, Brighton and Hove Albion and Bristol City.

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