When a college offered disaffected youngsters the chance to play football while they learn, the response was extraordinary. Shekhar Bhatia reports
The glittering prospect of premiership football stardom is enticing deprived teenagers, many of them expelled from school, back into learning.
In a partnership between a premier-league club and one of the UK's biggest further education colleges, students are being offered a chance to hone their soccer skills and go back into the classroom to gain qualifications.
Football managers and educationists are aware that top players such as David Beckham and Wayne Rooney left school without going into FE, but South Birmingham college hopes to show that young people can develop their sporting and learning prowess at the same time.
So popular is the programme that the number of places has been increased five-fold to 400 - even before it begins in September.
The popularity of the joint project with Birmingham City FC could also see more teachers being taken on, and many youngsters who may have missed their chance to learn a trade being given a second chance through FE.
Birmingham City's home is in Bordesley Green, an area with relatively high levels of deprivation and unemployment Alan Birks, principal of South Birmingham college, said: "The idea is to try to encourage kids back into learning through football. We will be looking at about 400 youngsters - and to persuade them to return to learning is the football part of it.
"Somebody might do two days' football training and three days' plastering, bricklaying or accountancy - or something like that.
"The hopefuls who might just make it as professionals or semi-professionals might do a little bit more football and a little less FE.
"And the ones not quite as promising would do a little bit of football and a lot of education."
The students can choose from course options including business studies, childcare and construction. In fact, the college's entire range of subjects is open to them.
Football is the carrot to entice teenagers into the classroom, but it is also the stick - a privilege that can be withdrawn if students do not keep up with their more conventional studies.
The college says Birmingham City has shown great enthusiasm for the new combined courses.
The club already has a community education department, whose job is to put something back into the local community by engaging schools and colleges.
It sees itself as promoting fitness in general, not just football.
In Bordesley Green, as in many deprived areas, health is a major issue. Mr Birks hopes that re-generation funding will pay for new sports facilities that can be used by all colleges in the area. He also wants to cast the net wider than those with footballing talent and include those who are less skilled.
He said: "The Football Association has an arrangement with the Learning and Skills Council for its apprenticeship scheme nationally. But we are talking about youngsters who are contenders to join the clubs as professional players.
"What we are proposing here is casting the net a bit wider and using the lure of the club to get kids who would otherwise would not be too interested in learning, to get back into education. They acquire a trade, qualification or a skill that will help in later life.
"There is room for improvement in the FE take-up post-16 in the area - and it doesn't have the highest post-16 retention rates in Birmingham.
"We're looking for courses to last for about two years for 16 to 18-year-olds, but there is no reason why it couldn't carry on beyond that.
Female students are welcomed - women's football is very popular and Birmingham has a strong women's team.
Mr Birks acknowledged that the huge salaries at the top of football are not reflected in the lower leagues. Even if his students become professional players, they could find the other skills the college has taught them valuable to supplement their incomes.
"There are two ways these students can earn a fortune through these courses - as footballers or as plumbers. And if you look at some of the smaller leagues, the plumber will be earning more than the footballer."
Students will be taught by staff from the club's community education team and from the college, which expects to recruit more staff as it attempts to sign up the 400 teenagers to the programme.
There are already a number of qualified trainers at the club, and the college will put them through the City and Guilds 7407 teacher-training qualification.
So, while FE contributes to the next generation of footballing talent the club is helping FE with the its own requirement for more qualified teachers.
Mr Birks said: "If we realise the 400 kids, we will need more staff. Maybe we will find the next Wayne Rooney but, from our point of view, it helps with 16-18 recruitment."
First-team players will help with recruitment and presentations, but the club stresses that it is just as interested in helping to transform young people's lives through education as it is to un cover new soccer talent.
A spokesman for Birmingham City FC said: "It's a great opportunity for people who are in full-time education to get a shot at playing for a professional football club.
"The club is not relying on players to come through - but we will be keeping an eye out for talent."