In a week when soccer in schools received a Pounds 1 million boost, John Davies looks at how sports teachers can make the most out of their local football clubs.
Local sports clubs have vital roles to play in the sporting development of young people." So claims Raising the Game, the policy report of the Government's summer initiative to improve school sport.
If there's one game where local clubs are already embracing this role, it's football. Coaches from clubs the length and breadth of England and Wales are to be found regularly organising games and passing on soccer skills in local schools.
"Almost every Premier League and Football League club in the country now has a community scheme, which means that of the 20,000 primary schools in the country, about half have some link with a club," says Roger Reade, chief administrator of the Community Programme in Professional Football, which oversees clubs' efforts and provides training and advice for their community officers.
So what is all the time and effort for? "We've got so many different aims, but one of the main ones is to make the football club accessible to all children in the area," says Alison Vaughan, education officer at Manchester City. Although the club aims to send its coaches to as many of Manchester's 200-plus primary schools as possible, in collaboration with the city council, it feels a particular affinity with the inner-city area where its Maine Road ground is located. "Alex Williams, our community development officer, used to be the City goalkeeper. Having him come to see them gives children a sense someone important is working with them. For a lot of kids in this area that really is a big thing."
Like most other clubs, Manchester City not only goes out to schools but invites children back to its ground. Here, in a specially-assigned room, schoolchildren will "do things like the maths of league tables, or write new songs for Manchester City. Every child will get a work book and we always try to get a player along to see them as well."
What Football in the Community schemes are not aimed at, however, is discovering talent. "It's not about finding tomorrow's Gazza," says Shaun Parker, Bristol City's community officer. "We are introducing the club to youngsters, and introducing football as a fun game. Of course, if we come across a mini-Paul Gascoigne, we're not going to walk away ."
At Millwall in south east London, Jim Hicks echoes this outlook. The First Division club's community scheme "is not about excellence at all," he says. "We wouldn't discourage any of the better kids from joining the club (as with most clubs, there's a youth development scheme that will scout for talent) but it's not what we're here for. We try to pass on the sport-for-all, let's-do-it-all-together type of message."
Milwall was one of the first clubs to establish a community scheme, over l0 years ago. "The mid-80s was a violent era, and the club was desperate to get away from its (fans') racist image and really take the club back to the local community," recalls Hicks.
Located in a multi-ethnic area straddling the London boroughs of Lewisham and Southwark, the club attracted funding from those two boroughs as well as (initially) the Greater London Council. It now visits between 12 and 14 local schools a week.
One such is Ilderton Primary School, close to Millwall's ground: "We've got quite a few children with behavioural problems, and PE helps to get a team spirit going within the class," says the school's PE co-ordinator Kate Wooder. "We'll play games where they'll have to work together; Millwall's coaches encourage that."
Under the club's scheme, coaches go to a school once a week for six weeks and, in Jim Hicks's words, "take over the sports lessons and give the kids the chance to play not just football but other sports cricket, short tennis, hockey, we'll respond to requests. All our staff are qualified to deal with special needs children, too."
Kate Wooder's school is undoubtedly fortunate to be so near a football ground. Indeed, Milwall's new stadium stands where the school used to have a playing field.But distance doesn't have to be a problem. In County Durham, for instance, Derwentside the area around Consett and Stanley has benefited from links with Sunderland FC, nearly 20 miles away.
"The club has visited all the schools here that have put in a request, and given free coaching," says Sally Roydon, development officer with Derwentside leisure services. "They've also helped start two out-of-school clubs. They have been a great success.
As well as sending qualified coaches into schools, many clubs offer school children free or reduced-rate tickets for league matches, and Sunderland is no exception: it also runs Saturday clubs, in which a "fun session" of playing football is followed by watching the first team play. Such activities won the club the 1995 Division One Football TrustLittlewoods Community Club of the Year title: the other winners were Manchester City in the Premier League, in the Second Division Leyton Orient (the overall winners) and Fulham and Walsall jointly in the Third.
Roger Reade acknowledges that there are parts of the country too far from a Football League club to benefit from any community scheme much of Devon and Cornwall, for instance. There have been attempts to fill in pockets in Norfolk and Kent and his organisation has been working with county football associations and non-league clubs like Kidderminster, Farnborough and Merthyr.
The main beneficiaries of such schemes have undoubtedly been primary schools. Walsall, for example, aims to visit most Year Six classes in its home town, offering and a question-and-answer session with a player, every year. "We also have schools visiting the ground and taking part in practical activities, " says Mick Kearns, a former Walsall player who now runs their community scheme. "For every problem-solving activity they do, a different person from the club talks to them from the tea-lady to the chairman to the players."
The rise of football clubs' community programmes has coincided with the expansion of women's football claimed by some to be Britain's fastest growing sport. Every club with a good community record seems to have made a point of involving girls as much as, if not more than, boys. Sunderland has five junior girls' teams in local leagues, and four ladies' teams. Millwall has developed "the first girls' football centre of excellence" where, according to Jim Hicks, "we'll coach on an individual basis any girl betwen 12 and 14 who lives within the M25, and has been recommended by her club."
At Manchester City, Alison Vaughan talks proudly of the tournament for secondary girls' teams that culminated earlier this year in a final on the Manchester City pitch. "It was in the half-time interval of a Premier League match, against Sheffield Wednesday" she recalls. "The crowd gave them really good support. For the girls to play actually at Maine Road in front of 20,000 people, even for just 10 minutes at half time, was brilliant."
For information about Football in the Community schemes, contact Roger Reade at Football in the Community, 2 Oxford Court, Bishopsgate, Manchester M2 3WQ. Tel: 0161-236 O583.
The Football Curriculum Guide is available from the Football Association, tel: 01707 651840
Football in schools received a Pounds 1 million boost this week, in the form of coaching videos and equipment, which will be made available to junior teams around the country through the "Football in the Community" sports project.
The Government for once will be quite happy to be accused of moving the goalposts, as the drive to get more young players on to the football pitch is being supported by Sportsmatch, the scheme by which sponsorship money is matched by contributions from the Department of National Heritage.
Aimed at sports teachers in primary schools, the project will distribute a free videopack, Finish with a Game, which illustrates football skills and coaching techniques. Sponsored by Pizza Hut, the resource will be made available through Football in the Community's network of 90 local representatives, attached to professional clubs in England and Wales.
As part of the initiative, sports clothes manufacturer, Umbro, is providing hold-alls, kit and markers for training, again through Football in the Community. The project, launched at Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium, is a response to Prime Minister John Major's "Raising the Game" initiative, which this summer called for a greater commitment to sports in schools, particularly team games.
Among the scheme's supporters is the Football Association, which this week published its Football Curriculum Guide, aimed at developing the game in schools. (Contact details below).