Goal! Cardiff FC ticket rewards entice pupils
Professional footballers are not renowned for their love of learning, but a South Wales head is hoping to use their example to motivate pupils.
Marc Belli, head of Mary Immaculate High School in Cardiff, has started a unique partnership with Cardiff City Football Club in an effort to improve attendance and attainment.
Since the start of term, the club, which is currently flying high in the Football League Championship, has donated more than 60 free match tickets to the school. Last week, team captain Mark Hudson paid pupils a visit.
Although the partnership is only two months old, it is already yielding results. Pupils in all years are offered the tickets as a reward for high attendance and hard work, and last week pupils with 100 per cent attendance took part in a Qamp;A session with Cardiff captain Mark Hudson. Attendance has jumped from 89 per cent a year ago to 92 per cent now.
"Some pupils in this school can barely afford uniform, so for them to have a football ticket is a big thing," Mr Belli said. "Very few of them will ever get the chance to see celebrities in the flesh or meet people they look up to, so this was a great opportunity."
Applications for Year 7 admissions have soared in the past year - there have been 40 for entry next September, compared with just two this time last year.
Only 18 months ago Mary Immaculate, an 11-16 school with 560 pupils, was threatened with closure owing to an "exceptionally high" number of surplus places.
Cardiff Council changed its mind after a fierce protest from parents and local Catholics, but the school still faces serious challenges. About a third of pupils receive free school meals and half live in 20 of the most deprived areas of Wales. An Estyn report last year said the school was in need of "significant improvement", with poor key stage 4 attainment levels and well below average attendance rates of 87 per cent.
But when Mr Belli - who, at 31, is one of the youngest secondary heads in Wales - was appointed last December, he saw "potential for greatness" at Mary Immaculate.
His first goal was to improve the school's standing in the community, and he spent months visiting local parishes to sell his vision of what he wanted to achieve. But it was while watching his beloved Cardiff City play that he came up with the idea of working with the club.
"I spoke to the marketing department and asked if there was any way in which we could entertain a partnership. Football is massive at Mary Immaculate, with both boys and girls, and I knew it could have an impact. They were keen to help and very proactive."
The alliance involved the school paying a small amount to advertise in match-day programmes and in the new Cardiff City stadium, and the club offering free match tickets and signed jerseys.
- Original headline: Goal! Cardiff FC ticket rewards entice pupils into school