The beautiful game isn't an obvious path to learning, but the nation's football clubs are teaming up with schools to tackle literacy, numeracy and IT skills. Dorothy Walker has the score.
Ten-year-old Andrew Fox has been thinking about his future. "I want to be a footballer," he says. "But if I don't make it, I will still need a good education." For the past few weeks, he has been covering his options by finding time for some extra practice in reading, writing, maths and IT - and he has been doing it at his local football club.
His classroom at Sheffield Wednesday FC, with its gleaming computers, was the first in a series of 22 study centres set up at football clubs throughout England as part of the Government's "Playing for Success" initiative. Launched in February 1998 and funded for three years, the pound;6 million scheme aims to capitalise on the glamour of football and encourage children to put in some extra-time study.
The aim is to help underachieving 10 to 14-year-olds improve their literacy, numeracy and IT skills; it is hoped that being at the heart of a football club will boost their motivation and self-esteem. And motivation seems to be running high. This summer, many youngsters are willingly giving up their holidays to continue their club-based studies at specially-arranged summer schools.
The broad guidelines the Department for Employment and Education has drawn up for the scheme allow clubs to tailor activities to match the needs of individual children who are selected by local schools. Some may be able to improve their basic skills by conquering behavioural problems. Others can benefit by seizing more opportunities to speak English if it is not the language used at home. For many others, the centres provide the first real opportunity to get to grips fully with a computer.
Set up with three-way funding from the Government, individual clubs and a variety of sponsors, the study centres are lavishly equipped compared with most schools. One computer for every two children is not unusual, nor are the latest high-tech accessories. Typically, a group of 20 pupils attend once or twice a week after school for six to 10 weeks. They work under a centre manager from the teaching profession and are supported by college students enlisted as mentors.
Most activities have a football theme and the computer is at the centre of the action. Centres are free to choose their own software, but a typical set-up includes an integrated learning package, such as SuccessMaker, to help monitor progress in literacy and numeracy, plus design and word processing software and Internet access. Popular projects include designing a football shirt with the aid of pictures from the Web, interviewing and writing about players, checking crowd and match statistics and building a football alphabet - for example: "A is for attitude: must be positive to win; B is for Beckham: plays for Manchester United and England."
When it kicked off, the scheme seemed likely to have most impact with boys. But girls loved football, too. Louise Evans, study centre manager at Wolverhampton Wanderers, says: "We have almost as many girls as boys. The girls are as motivated by being at a football club - in fact they're thrilled to bits."
Evans began working with her first children last November and has since increased each group's stay from six to 10 weeks. "It was virtually impossible to get measurable results in six weeks," she says. "We are now getting measurable results with SuccessMaker. The children do literacy and numeracy tests in the first and final weeks and with the last group we had some very pleasing results.
"We are building in some extra targets and if they can achieve them, they'll be able to come in summer. They'll be here in the morning, have lunch, then join in the soccer school run by the club, so they will have the best of both worlds."
Evans believes IT plays a large part in improving the children's self-esteem. "As their IT skills grow, you can see their confidence and pride about their work improving. We are trying to find some way to measure that, although it's not easy. But it is so obvious, so clear to see."
One of her most rewarding moments came when she asked a new group what they wanted to aim for. "Out of the blue, one of the girls said: 'I want to come off the school's challenging children list.' I thought: 'We've cracked it!' "It is working very well and we are getting very good feedback from the school about the effect it has on children. They are seeing improved motivation and better results."
The Wolves experience is borne out by a preliminary evaluation of the first six clubs to take part, carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). It found that pupils showed more positive attitudes to reading and maths after attending the centres and particularly enjoyed using computers and the Internet. The NFER plans a detailed national evaluation next year.
But each club is also expected to conduct its own evaluation. And when Margaret and Terry Nash recently set up Huddersfield Town's study centre, they called in an Office for Standards in Education inspector, Kapil Dudakia, to ensure the results were impartial. A self-confessed stickler for detail, Dudakia is conducting tests in literacy, numeracy and non-verbal reasoning and sitting in on centre sessions. He plans to "make judgements independently of anything that happens at a local or national level".
At two weeks into the first 10-week period, it was too early to talk about results but Dudakia says there had been positive signs of progress, particularly in attitudes. "I was at a session on Friday at 4 o'clock and a group came in and carried on working for a solid two hours. That is telling in itself. Some schools have said that in two weeks they have already noticed a change in the pupils' attitude towards schoolwork and their ability to stay on a task. And some teachers come in after school just to help out - that is true education in action," Dudakia says.
"This is what I call the honeymoon period. If it carries on after four weeks, they have sustained it, after six weeks, they have cracked it. If it continues until the end, I believe they have a gem that needs to be looked at very thoroughly."
With 36 clubs in the Premier League and Nationwide Division One committed to study centres, the scheme has spin-offs for the football world. Some clubs are making the most of their new facilities by linking up with local colleges to offer adult education, run cybercafes or hold IT courses for companies.
The initiative may even help create a new generation of football fans. Andy Morgan, community relations manager at Stoke City, says: "We'd like to set up a video conferencing link with other study centres in the North East and 'play' them at literacy and numeracy, in a kind of friendly league. The point wouldn't be to compete, but to overcome the hooligan mentality, and prove that other supporters are friends."
For more details of summer activities, call the DFEE's enquiry line: 0171 925 5555
I'LL COME HERE IN THE HOLIDAYS
Sue Beeley runs the study centre at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough ground. A veteran of the scheme, she devised activities from scratch in early 1998 and now shares her experience with fledgling study centre managers.
She says: "We don't do everything via football but let's face it, football motivates an awful lot of boys and girls."
The centre serves five secondary and 18 primary schools. Each group of 50 children attends for two evenings a week, primaries doing an early session and older children in from 5.30pm until 7.30pm. Sue says: "For some, just meeting children from other schools is a vital part of their social upbringing."
She says the children's confidence with IT varies enormously. "Some are scared stiff. They don't like making mistakes and aren't confident enough to ask questions. They know that in school they can get away with not using the machines because there are so many pupils.
"Here I am supported by a brilliant team of college students and the kids are in small groups, so are more willing to ask for help. I direct what they need to do next and deal with problems."
Andrew Fox, aged 10, says: "The students help us a lot. They listen to us read and they have time for you. I always bring my homework. I need to improve on my reading and spelling and I am improving now. Here it feels different - at school you don't have as much fun learning. I wouldn't mind coming here in the holidays."
His classmate, 11-year-old Beth Robinson, agrees: "It is really good. It is a different environment so we get to work better and there are more people to help you. We go on SuccessMaker and improve our reading and writing and maths. The computer tells you how many questions you get wrong and you can improve on it next week.
"When I came here, I said I wanted to improve my spelling and maths and build up my confidence with people. At first I was nervous, but now I am OK because the students are really nice. At school we have two computers in the classroom and I don't always get a turn. I find it easier to work a computer now."
* IT'S MORE COOL THAN SCHOOL
Jo Robson, study centre manager at London's West Ham United, explains her philosophy: "I am trying to build enthusiasm for learning and show it is something you can do anywhere."
Her centre has been running for two terms and by the end of the year all of the 71 schools in the club's home borough of Newham will have been offered places on a six-week session. Robson says: "Some centres are looking at level 3 or level 4 underachievers, others look at the top end of the scale, treating it as a reward for children who already attend study support.
"In Newham, a very disadvantaged area, I am looking at the children in the middle, the ones who are just plodding along and not very motivated by anything. In a short space of time - they have a total of 12 hours here - you want it to have some impact."
Children set targets in literacy, numeracy and IT. They also come up with a general target which they feel would help their performance in school, such as getting to school on time or going to bed earlier. Robson says: "We are just reinforcing the messages they already get in school. But by doing it in a more relaxed, cool, out-of-school kind of way, we might get the message across."
She says it is up to children how they use their time: "As it is out of school hours I tell them I am not going to force them to do anything." They can bring along homework, surf the Net or do a variety of projects. One of the first is learning to find their way around the Web by finding and printing a picture of their favourite football player.
"It's a major achievement," Robson says. "They leave with a picture of (Les) Ferdinand, (David) Beckham or (Ian) Wright and it's in colour as we're not on a tight budget like some schools. If they're not mad about football - and you can tell, some of them feel football is grating a bit - we use soap stars or pop stars."
Eleven-year-old Stacy Anneka, whose family recently arrived from the Caribbean, says. "I really enjoy it. It is more interesting and cool than school. I have learned how to use computers, reading, writing and maths," she says. "I wanted to improve spelling and reading and it is helping. I designed a football shirt with birds and Ian Wright's face on it. I think it would be useful to come here in the holidays."
Although there is no summer school funding, Robson is keen to offer a package which enables literacy co-ordinators at schools to run their own summer sessions at the centre.