Clash over football's stars of the future
The wealthy world of professional football is wresting control from the grassroots game in its search for home-grown talent - at the expense of education.
That's one interpretation of the Football Association's recent endorsement of the document A Charter for Quality, produced by Howard Wilkinson, the FA's technical director.
The charter encourages top clubs to set up academies to nurture players aged eight to 21.
There will be set coaching hours and a maximum number of games for each age group. Parents, with advice from schools and club representatives, will decide where the child should play the 30 matches allowed. However, a teenager enrolled at an academy could face three hours' travel plus two hours of football three evenings a week.
Malcolm Berry, chief executive of the English Schools Football Association (ESFA), thinks that the aura of a Premier League club will entice the parents and players away from schools.
And, along with Pat Smith, general secretary of the National Council for School Sport, he reckons that where the FA has gone, other rich sports will follow.
Mr Smith said other sports are worried. At a recent meeting, representatives of 30 sports "were upset by some of the implications. Talented boys would not have time to try other sports, go to youth clubs or even do homework. And the vast majority of them will be discarded by the clubs at the end of the day".
Currently, the ESFA, the FA and the leagues run a programme for talented children in about 100 centres. Youngsters go to clubs for one or two coaching sessions and play 35 matches for schools and 25 for the clubs.
"The education implications (of the new academies) haven't been thoroughly thought through - and there are tremendous educational demands on pupils now," said Mr Berry. "We support the FA's excellence programme, but it has to be about education and football, not football, football and football."
ESFA, which represents about 13,000 schools, did persuade the FA to co-opt teacher representatives to the new welfare and education committees which will oversee the academies, so education will have a stronger voice, said Mr Berry.
Mr Wilkinson, a PE graduate who taught for a short time, emphasised that the academy plans will only affect an elite 1 per cent of the thousands of pupils playing for their schools. He stressed that the welfare of the pupil was the prime consideration. Chris Laws, president of the Physical Education Association, acknowledged that the plan only affected a small number of players. "Potentially it could be a good model for other sports if the scheme is handled well and sensibly. The FA feels that unless they have some control on quality, some of the Premier clubs will set up their own schemes anyway, and in ignorance," he added.
But Mr Berry remains sceptical. "Is it a sincere effort to raise the standard of the game; or is it just a selfish search for talent that will, at the end of the day, save them from paying millions for players from the European league; or is it to develop players they might sell on for profit?" He urged parents to be cautious and schools to be sensible with their advice - and clubs not to be selfish.
FE Focus, page 32