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Pitch-perfect male role models for boys

Love of football can kick-start a love of books. And, believe it or not, footballers can be figures to look up to, says Dan Freedman

Love of football can kick-start a love of books. And, believe it or not, footballers can be figures to look up to, says Dan Freedman

As a 34-year-old, football-mad children's author, who occasionally gives talks in schools about my experiences as a football journalist, it is rather a shock to be called "Miss" by children trying to get my attention.

But there are so few male role models in the classroom - especially in primary schools - that some of the children actually believe this is an alternative word for teacher.

I've talked to children between the ages of 8 and 14 in hundreds of schools around the country after writing the Jamie Johnson series of children's books. These are stories of an ordinary boy who dreams of becoming a famous footballer, aimed particularly at reluctant readers.

Boys and girls are also intrigued by the fact that I got to meet and interview stars of the pitch - including David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sir Alex Ferguson and Lionel Messi - in my former role as editor of the Football Association's website. They never seem to run out of questions.

But the most important message I can give them is how much I love reading and writing books - although it was quite a journey to get here. In fact, when I was the age of the children I'm usually addressing I steadfastly refused to read anything at all.

So what changed? How did I end up going to university to study politics and philosophy but graduating in English literature? And how did I combine my obsession for the beautiful game with the world of reading, writing and children's fiction? It was simple, really. It took me not studying English to realise how much I missed it. Suddenly it became my choice to read. I stormed into the English department begging to change courses.

But I also had two very important male role models: my primary school teacher Mr Baldwin, and an English teacher, Mr Hitchcock, who knew how to work me - he was rather like a good football manager. I never lived with my dad (my parents separated when I was very young) so these two teachers wielded a particularly important influence.

Mr Baldwin made me stand up against a brick wall and kick the ball by myself for hours every break time. This was not a punishment. He recognised that I had an affinity with and aptitude for football and he wanted me to develop the ability to play with both feet. It was one of the best lessons I was ever given.

Mr Hitchcock, on the other hand, was simply astute, encouraging and supportive. When, after we were set our writing tasks, I would tell him that I was no good at English and simply could not write the essay he had asked for, he would gently enquire about some of my ideas. Most of the time he would do little more than reassure me, tell me that my ideas were valid and say I should allow myself to explore them. He gave me the confidence and encouragement I needed to believe in myself.

It's little wonder that today I still send him the draft of each new book I write. I have that warm glow of pride when he tells me it's good. We're friends now but he's still a role model for me. So it's a special pleasure when he invites me back into my old classroom at University College School in north London, where he has taught for 24 years, so I can tell his current generation of stubborn teenage boys that they can achieve anything they want.

Although I never lived with my dad I was fortunate to have another important male role model in my stepfather. Today I meet many children who are going through similar family breakdowns. On a visit to a school in Lincoln recently a boy of about 8 came up to me after I had finished speaking to the class and asked me how I felt when my parents got divorced. We discussed it. It was what he needed to do. And he seemed to want to do it with a man who understood what it was like to be a boy in his position.

But footballers can be role models, too - although I can see you throw your hands up in horror - and not only those like Steven Gerrard, one of the most honest people I have ever met. He now has his own foundation, which aims to make a lasting difference to disadvantaged children. (When I told him I was leaving my job as a journalist to write a series of children's books, he asked without hesitation if there was anything he could do to help.)

Footballers are the perfect role models for children who are more sporty than academic. I think we consider intelligence through far too narrow a prism. Yes, some people's minds are naturally set towards the arts, sciences or languages. But what about someone like Wayne Rooney? I can imagine some readers laughing. But stop for a minute and think about what his brain is capable of doing: as a volley is dropping to him, 30 yards from goal, not only can he calculate the timing, power, trajectory, angle and speed required to crash the ball into the net within the space of a millisecond, but his body can make it happen.

A lot of children ask me about their chances of becoming a professional footballer. And I have to tell them that they are slim to none. So the guys who have managed to achieve that dream - through skill, ambition, hard work and sacrifice - deserve some credit. At least they are famous for having a real talent.

I have always loved football. But it wasn't until much later that I realised I enjoyed reading, too. Perhaps if there had been more people around who understood what it felt like to be a stubborn teenage boy and took a different approach, that journey might have been quicker.

When I speak to children in class I tell them that they can enjoy reading, too. Actually, let me rephrase that. I don't tell them, I ask them what it is they would like to achieve and start the process of persuading them that they can do it.

Dan Freedman is the author of the Jamie Johnson series. His most recent book, Final Whistle, is out now, published by Scholastic.


Key stage 1: Footie focus

Help to develop sports journalists of the future with lbrowne's football writing exercise.

Key stage 2: Le football

Give pupils the right words to speak to French Premier League stars, with fanatic1's football vocabulary PowerPoint.

Key stage 3: Season starts

Kick off the autumn term by introducing students to Nick Hornby's novel Fever Pitch with TESEnglish's scheme of work.

Key stage 4: Penalties and poetry

Try MicB's football-flavoured resource pack on GCSE English sports poetry.

Key stage 5: On the ball

Aussieguy1977 shares a factsheet to support teaching about the film Bend it Like Beckham.

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