The Schools of Football initiative has this year been rolled out in six secondary schools across Scotland, allowing a select band of pupils to spend an hour a day improving their skills on the pitch. But far from drifting listlessly through other lessons, they have delighted teachers with their influence in the classroom.
The scheme, run by the Scottish Football Association, provides talented S1 youngsters with similar training and support to that of top professionals. It is based on the model established in a pilot at Falkirk's Graeme High last year, which won out over a parallel trial in Edinburgh where children came together from different schools.
The Braidhurst group of 18 boys and three girls, which splits up into different classes at other times of the day, was selected after North Lanarkshire Council sent 5,000 letters to P7 parents about the scheme and received 200 applications.
The young footballers at the school, one of North Lanarkshire's sports comprehensives, are trained by former Motherwell and St Mirren player Ian Ross. He stresses that the privilege of daily football depends on respect, discipline and high standards throughout the day. If someone failed to behave in another class, he underlines, "we would be straight on to it. This wouldn't run as a programme if that wasn't the case".
That ethos has shone through, claimed Derrick Hannan, the headteacher. The 21 young footballers' attendance is almost 100 per cent and teachers say their work ethic is rubbing off on other pupils. "Their enthusiasm for football makes them very enthusiastic for school," he said. "It's not just about the SFA trying to get super football players - it is about the whole person."
Training involves drills which give the youngsters as many touches of the ball as possible. The SFA studied young footballers in Brazil and found they always had a ball at their feet. The programme is also informed by Dutch coaching; its focus on individual ball skills helped turn the country from a footballing also-ran into a world power.
This approach, while novel in Scotland, is well established elsewhere and the SFA has examined NK Dinamo Zagreb's academy in Croatia. Alumni such as Luka Modric and Vedran Corluka have lifted their national side to major success.
Young footballers who talked to The TESS aspire to a professional career, but are modest about their abilities and speak earnestly about doing well at school. Samuel Biggart, 12, says it is important to meet teachers at lunchtime to find out what they have missed while training.
All appreciate the rare opportunity they have. Connor Macdonald, 12, showing a command of the footballer's lexicon, recalls he was "over the moon" when his dad rushed to his school with his letter of acceptance. Hydrotherapy treatments are one of the best things about the scheme - like James McFadden and Darren Fletcher, he spends time with the SFA's doctor and a physiotherapist, and receives the benefit of the sports medicine clinic.
The six schools will be funded for two years by money recovered from the proceeds of crime through the Scottish Government's CashBack for Communities programme. North Lanarkshire Council is paying for daily travel for pupils from the furthest reaches of the authority, including a large contingent from Cumbernauld. It will continue until these pupils leave school, even if the scheme is not continued. Pilots in Falkirk and Edinburgh are funded until the end of the school year.
Other Schools of Football: Castlehead High, Paisley; Craigie High, Dundee; Cumnock Academy; Newbattle Community High, Midlothian; St Machar Academy, Aberdeen.