Manchester United's team pyschology could become part of an A-level syllabus. Mike Prestage visits a pioneering college. Manchester United's recent victory over rivals Newcastle United was the topic of idle chat among students at The Sixth Form College, Farnborough. But from next year such discussion will form a legitimate part of their physical education course - at A-level.
The Hampshire college has a strong sporting record and has been in the vanguard of the PE A-level since its launch. With four groups of 20 students currently in the lower sixth, it has one of the highest take-ups in the country.
Now, staff at the college expect the numbers to swell still further because changes in the syllabus, to be introduced next year, mean that practical marks will be awarded for soccer skills, a development that has already attracted considerable public attention.
Games such as the one between the Uniteds of Manchester and Newcastle could be dissected to discuss tactics, skills, set-piece moves, and mistakes. Half-time team talks could be elevated to debate on motivation and psychology.
In 1986 the Associated Examining Board introduced A-level courses in physical education, and sport studies. Seventy per cent of the syllabus will soon be common to both, leaving a 30 per cent chunk for the practical element in PE. Of this only 7.5 per cent will be for actual performance in the sport.
Soccer is not the only game to benefit. Cricket, netball and rugby are also newcomers to a list of team games which had previously included only badminton, basketball, hockey and tennis (two of which are, strangely, mainly solo).
But what of claims that the course is a soft option? The tabloid accusation that this is A-levels for football? College principal John Guy has no doubts about the merit of the course or its academic pedigree.
He said: "It has made a significant contribution by providing opportunities for students to achieve success in an academic area which relates to their skills and interests." The notion of A-level in PE is taken seriously at the school, he added, and is seen as challenging academically. It requires as much detailed work as any other A-level subject.
Kelly Carvey, aged 16, opted for PE alongside maths and physics because she is sports-mad. However the choice raised a few eyebrows at home. "My dad was a bit hostile to me taking PE because he saw it as an easy way out. Now he knows what is involved he is much better. The people who are critical tend to be the ones who have no idea what the course is about."
David Shephard, 17, took PE A-level along with an advanced GNVQ (General National Vocational Qualification) in leisure and tourism because the two complement each other. He is keenly interested in sport and plans to take a degree course in science and the management of exercise and health.
He is a county-level soccer player and would have taken the football option had it had been available. "Talk about an A-level for football misses the point," he said. "You still have to be able to analyse and bring in a whole range of academic skills. You have to be intelligent as well as a good footballer. Having the mass-culture sport of this country in the syllabus means more people will go for it."
John Winter, senior course manager for sport, PE and physical recreation at the college, believes British attitudes towards the study of PE still lag behind those in other countries, particularly Australia. But he believes the A-level PE course is helping address that.
The subject, he said, was also helping to raise the image of PE teachers among colleagues. He believes the A-level course, with its emphasis on biology, sociology and physics, means PE teachers can now "find ourselves sitting comfortably in an intellectual environment".
At the college there is an equal split between boys and girls taking part but nationally, the balance is heavily in favour of boys. There is a problem, where sports governing bodies forbid mixed-sex matches. And there is a question mark over assessing practical soccer skills for girls.
So far, the Associated Examining Board is the only one to offer A-level PE, but other boards are in the middle of developing similar courses. From September, the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate will be introducing its own A-level with a wider range of sports options.
George Turnbull, a spokesman for the AEB, said it was inevitable that a new subject would attract some criticism, but it was the introduction of football that seemed to have sparked it in particular. The announcement that cricket was to be included went largely unnoticed.
He thought there was little opposition from within education circles and said the A-level was accepted by all universities. Some were quick to see the benefits it offered in demonstrating breadth in the student: "There will always be some academic who says everybody should be doing A-level Latin, but the world has moved on. What is relevant today is different and these are legitimate areas of academic study."
Ten thousand students will sit the exam this year, 14,000 next year. A survey conducted by the AEB into previous exam entrants showed 60 per cent of students were going on to take degree courses outside sport-related areas.
Bob Carroll, director of the Centre for Physical Education and Leisure Studies at the University of Manchester said: "The value of the course has been shown by the increased numbers of students taking part. The people who criticise don't really know what is involved. It isn't just a kick around at football. "