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Who needs Japan when we've got the Orient?

The Far East might have Beckham, Zidane and the rest, but back in east London it's the local third division club that is the focus of attention. Matthew Brown finds out how football fever is helping to promote literacy and citizenship

"The point about football in Britain is that it is not just a sport people take to, like cricket or tennis or running long distances. It is inherent in the people. It is built into the urban psyche, as much a common experience to our children as are uncles and school."

Arthur Hopcraft, from The Football Man: people and passions in soccer (1968) Eighteen teenage boys of all shades, shapes and sizes are shuffling across the shiny-wet green carpet of a small artificial football pitch behind Leyton sixth-form college, capped and hooded against the rain. "Hit it," cries Sabir. Mohamed strikes the ball cleanly. It whacks against the brown wooden boards between two orange cones. "What a goal," shouts Sabir. "Who says Asians can't play football, eh?"

Mohamed grins, wipes the sodden hair from his forehead and hitches his flapping shorts. "See fellas, it's all about movement," says Sabir. The ball is quickly back in play and Mohamed and his mates resume their dance of baggy tracksuits and Nike trainers.

The "fellas" are 15-year-old pupils from nearby McEntee school in the east London borough of Waltham Forest, and Sabir Bham is a professional coach from third division Leyton Orient's community sports programme. It may be a long way from Japan and South Korea, but this bunch of East Enders are as much a testament to football's hold on the "urban psyche" as our fascination with the wealthy stars of Sven-Goran Eriksson's squad, and the glamour of the World Cup.

"Football to them is the be-all and end-all," says Tony Mercer, PE teacher at McEntee. "It's their life. It's what gets them here."

They're "here" to benefit from one small part of Leyton Orient's extensive education work with local schools. In this case, it's a pilot project of study courses for children at risk of exclusion, and its aim is to improve not only their football abilities but their basic study skills. Held once a week for 10 weeks, the course uses boys' obsession with football to guide them towards Open College Network qualifications in football coaching and the football industry.

After the game, Phil Rudling, the community scheme's education officer, takes the group on a tour of Leyton Orient's Brisbane Road ground, questioning them about stadium design, ticket prices, club finances, ground security and other off-the-field issues of the football world.

"The aim is to give them an idea of how football works as a business," he says. "And to show them there are lots of other jobs in the game apart from playing. At the end, they'll get a certificate presented by a player at the club."

Mr Mercer says these boys will leave school feeling that they've achieved something - "instead of thinking they've failed". What matters, he says, is that they're motivated to learn. "Even on a day like this, they're all here. And that's saying something."

The scope of the football club's education work is impressive: as well as the study courses, there are after-school literacy and numeracy clubs in Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest; a programme linked to the Government's Playing for Success project; a classroom-based Learning through Football project with schools in Hackney's education action zone; school netball, tennis and basketball clubs on the Isle of Dogs; holiday sports courses and reading classes; and work with special schools.

It sounds more like the work of a local education authority than an offshoot of a football club. Indeed, the growing importance of the community programme is reflected in its changing status: it is now a charity, with an annual income of around pound;700,000, and 40 members of staff, 15 of them full-time.

Neil Watson, the programme's director, says: "Football gives us an engagement with the most difficult kids because it's got street credibility. You can sustain their interest because it's something they want to do. Once we've built trust around the game, we can become a signpost to other things, moving them towards qualifications, college, or jobs.

"In schools, we work with those kids who aren't going to get a load of GCSEs. They've been constantly let down, so it's no good making grand promises. All we can say to their schools is: 'We can help them'."

Leyton Orient's education programme was one example of good practice highlighted at a conference for teachers and educationists held at Manchester United's Old Trafford ground last month. Called "Football, Citizenship and Anti-Racism", the conference was organised by Kick It Out, the national campaign to fight racism in football, and aimed to explore how "to use football to overcome social exclusion, underline codes of behaviour and address feelings of isolation from the mainstream", especially in light of citizenship becoming compulsory from September.

Kick It Out's Alison Vaughan explains the thinking behind the project: "For some teachers, the idea of citizenship seems quite dry; they're not sure how to deal with it. Schools need to find ways to deliver the subject in interesting ways, and football provides a natural hook. The main themes of citizenship - rights and responsibilities, diversity and so on - are highlighted in football, so it can be an ideal way to get those messages across."

A recent report from the National Foundation for Educational Research found that many schools are uneasy about how to teach citizenship. Football can help, says Ms Vaughan, because its hold on children's imaginations makes it a valuable tool for education and social inclusion. This was recognised by the Government as far back as 1997 when it launched Playing for Success, which uses the magnet of local football clubs to attract schoolchildren to after-school literacy, numeracy and ICT classes. More than 40 Premiership and Nationwide league clubs now take part in the scheme, including top clubs such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Leeds United; many have dedicated study centres and education workers.

In other cases, the initiative comes from the community. Howard Holmes is co-ordinator of Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD), a community-based anti-racism project in Sheffield. "We use football as a hook, a stimulus to get young people interested," he says. "It's always been our belief that if you use things that matter to them, you get kids engaged. That allows you to open up debates about racism in football, then other issues of discrimination and social exclusion."

FURD has been working with the Institute of Citizenship on curriculum materials and teachers' notes. Recently, it has been running after-school sessions for disaffected Year 10 pupils, involving both coaching and classroom sessions.

"At the beginning, what attracted the kids was the chance to be coached," says Lisa Sultani, FURD's education worker. "But by the end they were pleased with their new communication and peer-mentoring skills. These are young people with huge behaviour problems, but they kept coming throughout the 12-week course."

Ms Sultani hopes the new emphasis on citizenship will encourage schools to work more closely with groups such as hers, using them on the timetable as well as after school. "When they realise they've got to start taking on all this stuff, I'm sure they'll start looking around for help."

Schools in some areas are already doing just that. In Staffordshire, for example, a collaboration between schools, social exclusion units, Port Vale football club's community scheme, and the New Vic Borderlines theatre company, has led to an innovative piece of educational drama about football and race.

Called It's Not as Simple as Black and White, the play is set on a mini-football pitch with black, Asian and white football teams. It tells four interrelated stories which play on stereotypes of the racial groups, using humour and footballing metaphors to unpick them while the characters interact with the audience. According to director Sue Moffat, it is football's structure and social meaning that makes this possible.

"Football brings huge numbers of people together; it's a celebration of community in support of a team," she says. "But you need the opposition because there is no game if there isn't the other side to play against. Each team needs diversity to work, people of different strengths and skills; a community needs that kind of diversity too."

The play explores what happens to a team when people are excluded or treated badly, and gives the audience opportunities to affect the action by advising the characters, at times literally showing racism the red card. There are worksheets and an education pack to help teachers and pupils to continue working on the issues.

The play has been seen by 6,500 pupils locally, and the company has worked with 2,500 in workshops. "I think it's been very useful for teachers," says Ms Moffat. "They have these things thrown at them - 'teach citizenship', or whatever - but no one has actually said what it is or what to do about it. So it's important to be able to show how football can be used to address these issues."

For her, theatre has been a particularly apt medium for doing this. "Every Saturday on football pitches around the country, drama is played out. Football has its crises, peaks and troughs, that tension and passion that a good piece of theatre should have."

The football writer Arthur Hopcraft also likened football to art. "It has conflict and beauty," he said, "and when those two qualities are present together in something offered for public appraisal, they represent much of what I understand to be art."

But he also said that football is "an everyday matter", one that "engages the personality". And although it's the World Cup which has us rapt right now, perhaps it is football's "everyday" quality which gives it the power to be what Alison Vaughan calls "a tool for good".

Kick it Out, tel: 020 7684 4884; www.kickitout.orgFootball Unites, Racism Divides: www.furd.orgNew Vic Borderlines: 01782 717954 ext 309

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