...but love of the beautiful game could help lift achievement at key stages 2 and 3. At least that's what the Government's hoping, as Gerald Haigh reports
The power of football goes way beyond sport. Businessmen are prepared to part with large sums of money to get a taste of the heady atmosphere of competition and success; they pay to hold meetings overlooking the hallowed turf of premier clubs just to be there, to be in on the action.
Children too are susceptible. Watch a group of 13 and 14-year-olds arrive at the Elland Road ground of Leeds United and it becomes clear. They move into the players' dressing room and see the players' shirts on hangers - Radebe, Hiden, Kewell, Sharpe, Wetherall, HopkinI They split up quietly into twos and threes and sit around the changing room bench beside the shirts of their favourites. They photograph each other and one girl holds Harry Kewell's shirt to her cheek. There are jokes, and some leg-pulling, but the atmosphere is closer to reverence than to hysteria.
The Government has recognised this pulling power in "Playing for Success", its nationwide programme linking school standards to football. At Elland Road's after-school study centre, Steve Smith, a former primary teacher, talks of "the power of the brand name of a football club".
At Newcastle United, centre manager Phil McBride says that for him it's opened doors. "Because of their power in the community, football clubs will get resources that schools can't." Newcastle, for example, has 25 networked multimedia PCs, donated by a local sponsor. The study centre at Leeds has pound;50,000 worth of equipment from Packard Bell and communications firm, Planet.
The Leeds centre houses "Playing for Success" for two sessions of two hours every evening and on Saturday mornings. Key stage 2 children come straight after school; key stage 3 arrive at 5.30pm. They attend twice a week for 10 weeks - so each pupil has 40 hours in the study centre. (This pattern varies in detail from centre to centre, but the general approach is common.) Some critics have suggested that, given the funding, schools could do this job on their own premises. Steve Smith feels that this misses the point, which is that taking children out of school to a different environment can change their attitude. It provides failing - or potentially failing - children with a new chance to succeed.
"They have a fresh identity here. We're on first-name terms, they can have a drink and a biscuit, they can go to the loo when they want - it's 40 hours in a fresh environment with a good tutor-pupil ratio, first-class resources and a relaxed atmosphere."
The work itself is planned and purposeful. Starting points are arrived at in consultation with the school, each child works out personal targets and signs an imposing looking contract ("We agree to abide by the commitment...") This is countersigned by a parent and by a club player. Progress is then carefully assessed and tested.
Target setting is usually done with a volunteer mentor. I eavesdrop on 16-year-old Laura Strudwick from Morley High School coaxing 11-year-old Carla Watts into writing down her strengths and weaknesses. Is she good at dancing? "Too girly. I like rugby." So what isn't she good at? Eventually Carla admits to fractions, and Laura beams. "Write that down, we've got a good game for that - you'll love it!" Typically in the two-hour session, a child will do half-an-hour of basic skills on "Success Maker", an integrated learning system, and another 30 minutes with a mentor on paired reading, or a maths game or a set homework task from school.
The second hour might be divided between word processing, researching with CD-Roms or on the Internet, and learning about e-mail. There are also occasional forays out of the centre to do practical space and measure activities, to further a local history project or to interview a player using video equipment.
Steve Smith is determined to advance these young people, to give them experience of success and to let them enjoy being the centre of attention when certificates and awards are given out at the end of the 10-week block. "A child finds out what it's like to be made a real fuss of - to be called up from the back of the banqueting suite at Elland Road to meet a player, and receive a certificate for 100 per cent attendance."
The scheme is still in its early days, but basic attendance figures are encouraging. Only four of the 120 children in the first 10-week block dropped out. A further three were withdrawn by their schools for misbehaviour - not in the centre but on the bus. Of the rest, more than 30 per cent per cent had 100 per cent attendance.
Basic skills tests usually show progress - although, as Steve readily points out, the pupils are being taught at school, too. What really impresses him is the evidence of increased motivation and confidence. "Most parents mention confidence."
Kathryn Atkins, headteacher of Westwood Primary School in Leeds, says her school chose children "not usually targeted - not high-flyers, not special needs, but just below level four at the end of key stage 2. If you can pick them to do something special, you can raise them above that average level." Six of her pupils were in the first block. "We saw a real change in their self-esteem, and improvements in work and attitude."
Secondary teachers, too, notice improvements. "You can see the difference straight away," says Mike Cooke, head of Year 9 at Middleton Park High. "One of our pupils gained the prize for making the most progress in maths."
And imaginative leadership could take the centres down new roads. Steve Smith, for example, plans to run summer "top-up days" for pupils who have been involved during the year. West Ham's centre is developing a link with Newham College that could eventually bring families and further education into the centre. In Newcastle, the art gallery and a local museum have already looked at the centre with a view to developing their own educational work along similar lines.
Alec King, marketing manager at Newcastle, says the real key to success lies in the quality of the leadership. "We've got a top class teacher here - keen, and with experience in a special school." Phil McBride, Geordie and self-confessed football nut ("semi-professional player and Newcastle United fan.") answered a national advertisement for his job, and there are bound to be other vacancies as time goes on.
So is this a good move for a teacher in mid career? "After 20 years in school, this is a new world, dealing with the club, the authority, the DFEE, parents, heads and sponsors as well as teaching," he says. "But it's not a gimmick. Tony Blair and his team are on to something here. It's an exciting and challenging way forward."