Last week the news broke that a new A-level qualification was being suggested, in football. Here in the North-west this is a serious matter, because we reckon we lead the nation in three things - black pudding, annual rainfall and football.
So, one of our regional distinctions was recognised as having equal status with such southern distractions as Latin and economics. Or was it? As the idea was mooted, people were jumping up and crying foul. Football, it was said, is not a fit subject for academic study. How can you make a responsible study of the grunting, kicking and spitting that goes on every week in the stadia that no sensible person would enter?
The counter-attack was not long in coming. Former famous players, the living legends of media speak, said that they did not want the noble game contaminated by clever clogs setting examinations. Wrinkling their brows, still marked with the imprint of soggy leather balls, they spoke slightingly of the modern game as it is played by Fancy Dans wearing slippers and bicycle shorts.
This all sounded very familiar, and it is. It is a replay of the arguments which we hear every time a "new" subject is suggested. Communications, media studies, psychology, philosophy and economics have all been derided as inappropriate subjects for serious-minded 16-year-olds. Imaginative folk like artists have protested that creativity can not be measured in modules and performance criteria. Squads of candidates have proved them all wrong.
The issues were well set out nearly 30 years ago. The Schools Council working paper 25 asserted that any subject was worthy of study if it had what it called significance, connections and transfer. Despite its near-antique status, the document still holds good, and it is illuminating to apply its principles to football. Is it significant? Given that it is a multi-billion pound activity, providing work for millions, it may have a stronger claim than further mathematics; it is a daily means of expression in more countries of the world than French, and it has a far longer history than electronics.
Does it have connections? What the Schools Council meant by connections were the clear links into other subjects which could be developed by good teaching. So, for example, a study of physics could lead on to considerations about morality and ethics (H-bombs) or aesthetics (light and spectrum). Football has more connections of that kind than most subjects.
The sociology of football takes you straight into class, crime, tribalism and bonding. With more than a touch of semiotics and role-displacement, as the former England manager, Sir Alf Ramsey was wont to remark. Study the economics of football and you are knee-deep at micro level in the relationship between costs and prices, the valuation of assets, and franchises, and at the macro level you cannot avoid international currency markets and the impact of football upon the national economy (what did the World Cup do for Mexico?). Geography, international relations and the impact of the media all flow from football. Ask Sir Bobby Charlton.
And the third requirement, transfer? Nothing to do with buying and selling players and alleged handing-over of money in paper bags at motorway service stations, but all about skills. Would the study of football develop useful learning skills? Analysis of evidence, numeracy, communication and team work are all key educational abilities, and the list could go on. So, nothing wrong with football as a serious subject.
Who would take it? Probably quite a few here. This college takes trainees from most league clubs in the North-west to prepare them for a general national vocational qualification at advanced level in leisure management. If we offered A-level football, I would expect them to waltz through the practical part (30% of the assessment) because they are pretty good at the required skills already: dribbling, shooting, arguing with the referee, and stealing 10 yards at every throw-in.
There is no reason why A-level football should not very quickly become a truly portable, international qualification. The Associated Examination Board which offers the qualification is confident that it will be accepted by UK universities, and since we invented the game itself and gave it to a grateful world, we can expect them to be equally appreciative of the examination.
So, let's hear it for the newest upholder of the gold standard, worthy successor to Greek and Latin. They are out of favour at the moment, but changing membership of the top league of most popular A-levels is itself a healthy proof of the organic nature of education. Colleges which do not move are stagnant: the first stage of decay. So, too, with A-level programmes.
The wider question of why we want or need to offer a certificate to record performance in almost every kind of activity remains unanswered. It is one of our little national quirks. We have persuaded ourselves, or been brow-beaten by the examinations industry to think that what cannot be examined and certificated has no value. The Further Education Funding Council obviously shares that view: no qualification, no funding.
Almost the only publicly-performed activity without a qualification structure is marriage. The opportunities are self-evident: long history, cultural variations, plate-throwing, with special papers on the symbolism of the ring and the impact of the 1471 dial-back service on marital relationships. A good mix of the practical and the theoretical, case studies readily to hand. The nation needs a framework, at all levels from foundation to post-graduate, because we are so bad at it, with one marriage in three collapsing. We clearly don't understand the subject at all, In the meantime we will have to struggle with what we have, until the controlling bodies of darts, snooker and synchronised swimming wake up to the status they would achieve if they could demonstrate the academic rigour of their sport. Then going to the pub, club and the sports centre could be properly described as homework, a legitimate part of swotting for the exams. It would do a lot for family peace and marriages.
Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College