Giving apprentices a great shot at the future

A college's partnership with the National Football Centre is helping young people to forge career paths and fill skills shortages

Stephen Exley

Arriving at St George's Park on the day of an England World Cup match, as I did a few weeks ago, it is easy to be swept up in the positivity that pervades the imposing pound;105 million facility.

The National Football Centre in Burton upon Trent, which was opened less than two years ago by the Football Association (FA) in a bid to transform the country's fortunes on the pitch, is full of excited employees wearing England shirts.

Bunting bearing the St George's Cross is draped around the canteen. The walls are adorned with giant images of footballing legends like Bobby Moore and Brian Clough, alongside motivational mantras such as "the future starts now".

Surrounded by burning optimism, not to mention world-class training facilities (including a pound;400,000 underwater treadmill and an indoor pitch the size of Wembley), it is hard not to dream that, just maybe, this could be England's year.

Sadly, and all too predictably, England's familiar failings on the pitch were seen once more in Brazil. Within hours of TES' visit, England had slumped to defeat against Uruguay; within a week, the likes of Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney were home in time to watch the first knockout stages on television.

But just as manager Roy Hodgson insists that his faith in England's top young players will bear fruit in the future, a commitment to developing the next generation of talent is a key part of the ethos of St George's Park, both at the football headquarters and the four-star Hilton hotel on the site.

The FA and Hilton have set up a partnership with Burton and South Derbyshire College to take on 10 apprentices a year across a wide variety of sectors, including marketing, hospitality and commercial administration. This will double to 20 in 2014-15, college principal Dawn Ward tells TES.

"It's been a fantastic opportunity for the college, having such a prestigious facility on its doorstep," she says. "It's been wonderful in helping us raise the aspirations of our students.

"The ethos of coaching and mentoring at St George's Park applies to further education as well, whatever the skills we are developing for the workplace. St George's Park is the most amazing place. We couldn't afford to create this level of facility ourselves, and we're very fortunate to be able to use it."

For the FA, however, the decision to team up with the college was based on pragmatism rather than altruism, admits Julie Harrington, managing director of St George's Park.

"In the local area we have a mixture of affluent villages, where the residents probably wouldn't want to go into the service sector, and what you might regard as a skills shortage in the towns," she says. "There's isn't really a comparable facility; there's no other four- or five-star hotel in the area. In terms of finding students to do silver service and provide the quality of customer service our guests require, we found there was a skills shortage. We decided to address it at source - we can train and create our own workforce."

Match made in heaven

The close relationship between St George's Park and the college - which contributed pound;1 million towards the project - suits both parties. The college can make use of training, events and sports facilities at the site, and has hosted big-name guest speakers such as former England defender-turned-manager Gareth Southgate. It has also received backing from the FA for its planned university technical college, due to open next year.

But the main beneficiaries are the apprentices themselves. Alice Wood, 19, is working towards a level 2 apprenticeship in food and beverage service. She works four days a week in the hospitality team at the Hilton on the site, and one day a week at the college.

"I wasn't sure what I wanted to do when I first applied, but I came for an interview and got the job, and I really enjoy it," she says. "We see a lot of famous faces every day. When the England squad comes, there's a massive buzz. It's fun seeing the England guys, the prime minister, Olly Murs."

Josh Burnage, a level 2 electrical engineering apprentice at the hotel, has come into even closer contact with the players.

"I've been in their rooms with some of them, having a chat while mending their telly. I've been in a room with [England striker] Daniel Sturridge, plugging his PlayStation in for him."

But the allure of working with Premier League stars can bring its own problems. One budding groundsman, Ms Harrington reveals, arrived at St George's Park with somewhat unrealistic expectations of his new role.

"He was a bit star-struck, and thought he was going to be watching Wayne Rooney playing all day," she says. "He was a bit shocked everyone didn't go inside when it started raining.

"It's all about managing the expectations of the young people. Some think that, as it's the national football centre, they're going to be rubbing shoulders with the England team all the time. We stress that there's a lot of hard work involved."

But the opportunities for the young people of the East Midlands, she insists, are unparalleled. "Our ethos is all about inspiring potential, not just on the football field but of all the young people who are working for us," she says.

It's good to see that the England set-up is getting at least one thing right.

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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