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A game for young hearts

Classroom morale in some schools falls and rises in line with the fortunes of the home team. But teachers can capitalise on their pupils' devotion to football. Julie Henry reports.

"FOOTBALL is not a matter of life or death - it's far more important than that."

Bill Shankly's famous quote is never more appropriate than in a world where Posh and Becks are the new royal family, where the Prime Minister has to pretend he is a Newcastle fan and football is known as the "beautiful game".

According to John Williams, headteacher of Leicester University centre for football studies, no one feels the highs and lows more acutely than children, who have been brought up on the new glamour and seduction of the high-

octane premiership league.

"Football's fan base has increased enormously over the past 10 years. It is no longer just about sport, it is big business, show business and soap opera rolled into one. Youngsters, probably more than anyone, go through the rollercoaster of promotion and relegation."

And more girls than ever are becoming obsessed by the game of two halves. The Football Association reports that more than 2,000 female school teams are entering national competitions, with thousands more playing in local leagues.

Failure and success of the home team can transform school atmospheres.

Manchester City's rise to the big league this weekend, and United's consolidation of the top spot, has brought double celebrations at St Paul's primary school in Withington, Manchester.

City fan and headteacher Don Berry said teachers and pupils are on a high. "Our steel band playd Blue Moon at assembly on Monday morning, despite the fact it's led by a United fan," he said.

The fortunes of clubs who battle against the odds and succeed can be a valuable lesson to pupils.

Mr Berry said: "Last year when we went up to the first division and United won the treble, I did an assembly on how never giving up and keeping up the hard work does pay off. What happens on the pitch can sometimes be an inspiration in the classroom."

In cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and parts of London, where two big teams vie for supremacy, schools have to be careful to downplay the tribalism.

"We are multi-faith, both in terms of religion and football allegiance. We encourage pupils to respect each other's sense of emotional commitment," said Mr Berry.

By contrast, staff and pupils at schools in Watford are contemplating life in the first division after their brief stint in the premiership.

Laurence Haines primary is a stone's throw away from the ground. Headteacher Howard Handley said commitment to the club in the local community was stronger than any feelings of disappointment.

"There's a notice in the window of the Indian take-away down the road which says 'Hornets are for life, not just the premiership' - that's how the youngsters around here feel."

Copies of the Learning FC guide, which uses football to teach English and maths, will be distributed to football club learning centres and schools.

The book, written in conjunction with staff at Manchester City, was paid for with a pound;100,000 grant from the Professional Footballers' Association.

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