Dorothy Walker reports
"Awesome" is how Toby Winter sums up the potential of a web-based fantasy football game which is generating new enthusiasm for maths among girls at his Southampton school.
At the beginning of the season students and teachers at Regents Park Girls'
School signed up for the national Schools Fantasy League, fielding their own dream teams in a game that tracks the real-life performance of Premiership players. Toby Winter is the school's maths subject leader, and his enthusiasm remains undimmed by the fact that his own team is languishing at the bottom of the Regents Park league. "Mathchester United are rubbish," he concedes happily.
The school entered 70 squads in the competition, which attracted more than 75,000 pupils across the UK last season. Most of the Regents Park teams were put together by groups of three or four girls. The focus was on key stage 3, although some older girls have been taking part.
Two maths lessons were dedicated to introducing Years 7, 8 and 9 to the league and helping with team selection. The session kicked off with a discussion on football and the different kinds of players in a team. The girls would have pound;60 million to spend, and they would have to select a goalkeeper, two full backs, two centre backs, four midfielders and two strikers from lists of Premiership names, with no more than three players coming from the same club. Footballers earn points on the strength of their showing in Premiership games. Points are awarded for goal-scoring, assisting and defending - and deductions made for letting in goals - and the season's rankings are updated each week on the Schools Fantasy League website.
"We talked about the maths of the point-scoring system, and we looked at the statistics for previous years to work out who was a good buy and who wasn't," explains Toby Winter. "The aim was to encourage the girls to think about how to put together a good team, rather than selecting players only because they were good looking or came from a strong club.
"They went on to talk about their ideal teams and they worked out how much they would cost-in most cases the total was a lot more than pound;60 million. Most of the girls chose Arsenal's Thierry Henry, and he alone is pound;12.3 million. They were then given time to put together a team that came within budget, and do a trial improvement, going through their list to test out possible substitutions."
A presentation was downloaded from the league's website to help teachers who are unfamiliar with the world of football to deliver the lesson. "The delivery was the same for all sets of pupils, and it was fascinating to see both higher and lower ability sets really attacking the problems," says Toby. "There was so much powerful maths involved - and what was most impressive was the way the girls were applying the maths to solve problems.
We talk to them so much about problem solving, but most of the time they simply cannot see it being applicable to real life. They find it difficult to relate to scenarios about plumbers charging a fixed callout fee and an hourly rate, but with fantasy football the girls are in charge, and they are solving a problem that is their own."
The students spent an ICT lesson registering their teams online, and they have made regular visits to the website to check on progress throughout the season. The Schools Fantasy League publishes country-wide team rankings as well as each school's own league, although Toby says the main focus at Regents Park is on in-house competition. "The pupils like to see how they are doing nationally, but they particularly enjoy seeing how they are doing against my team. We have dedicated part of the school display area to the fantasy league, and we want to make it a whole-school activity, where everyone has a common focus - that was the main reason we invited staff to take part.
"People don't always associate girls with football, but our pupils are into football big time. We found out that many of them have Southampton season tickets. They have pictures of Alan Smith in their lockers, and they are currently swooning over Manchester United's Ronaldo."
As part of the fantasy league activities, the school arranged a lesson for Year 7 at Southampton's St Mary's Stadium. The girls used the web to find data on the fitness and physique of Southampton and Chelsea players, and compared the two teams in a report compiled for Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe. "They found that Southampton players are a lot heavier, and one girl suggested Rupert should hire skinnier players," says Toby.
The season includes three transfer windows, which provide opportunities for the girls to alter the make-up of their teams. "Some really do their homework - they look at the form guide on the website and change as many players as they can," says Toby, who admits that Mathchester United have seen absolutely no transfer activity.
Last year, Regents Park became a business and enterprise college, and in its bid for specialist status the school named Schools Fantasy League as one of the key tools it would use to raise attainment in maths. In future, pupils will be encouraged to take on more responsibility for promoting the game. Toby says: "We are looking at whether a group of girls could take on the task of introducing the game to other pupils, and we might have ladder tutor groups, with students of different ages collaborating on putting together a team. It is more likely to become self-sustaining if they take it over and run it for themselves."
He says the league is also a powerful vehicle for promoting the use of maths in other subjects. "There is enormous scope for making cross-curricular links with subjects ranging from business studies to PE.
And we hope it will be the girls who will go to other departments and say: look, this is what we could get going.
"The league is fantastic. People tend to take a negative view of maths, and to be able to deliver maths with a tool like this is really beneficial."
The Schools Fantasy League is in its sixth season, and last year more than 1,200 schools took part. It costs pound;3.50 to enter each team, and at Regents Park Girls' School, eLearning Credits were used to fund the cost. The service includes the administration of league tables and local, regional and national competitions. Monthly awards certificates and end-of-season medals and trophies are provided. Resources at the website include activity sheets for maths, ICT, science, citizenship, English, design and technology and history, covering KS2-4.