Why football can be a powerful force in education

A footballer who became a teacher explains how the sport is being used to drive educational success

Vincent Docherty

Why football can be a powerful force in education

Perhaps I, more than most, can see the similarities between education and football. As a youngster I had various offers from senior clubs and played football all the time, but it was when Arthur Cox – a longtime manager of Derby County in the '80s and '90s – offered me a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) rather than a full contract that I knew my future lay elsewhere.

It was my experience of coaching younger players that led me to consider a career in teaching. I thought: I can connect with people, I’m good at engaging them and I’d really like to inspire people. I started out teaching maths and physics at a secondary in Easterhouse, in the East End of Glasgow, and utterly loved it. Pupils there were passionate about football and it meant so much more to them than anything school had to offer.

Since then, for me, football has never been far away. My brother Tony Docherty, who is now assistant manager at Aberdeen Football Club, continued as a player for a number of years before going into coaching. I follow whichever team he is with and go to as many games as I can. I have been mesmerised by some managers he has worked with, in their ability to inspire players, and I continue to be fascinated with how we can best drive young people to succeed in their learning in a similar way.

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When my colleague Avril Nicol – a self-confessed Dons fanatic – came to me with an idea to partner up her community learning and development (CLD) team with Aberdeen FC’s community trust and deliver an alternative curriculum to some of our most challenging pupils in one of our most challenging schools, it was a no-brainer.

As a headteacher in Glasgow, I had helped to set up a soccer school in Maryhill, the John Paul Academy, so I instinctively knew it could work in Peterhead. The attraction of football always seems enough to access that initial engagement of most young people.

Our PeterDeen scholarship programme means it goes a step further than just being a soccer school, though. We’ve just come to the end of our first academic year of the programme and already it has been recognised as the SPFL (Scottish Professional Football League) Trust’s Community Project of the Year.

The 18 S3 pupils – aged around 13-14 – who have taken part have enjoyed two days per week of specialist input from Aberdeen FC; gained professional coaching qualifications and that essential push on exercise, which drives your mind as well as your body; two days studying core subjects at school such as maths and English; and one day a week enjoying a variety of activities with our Work With Young People team.

Another local professional team, Peterhead FC, were able to provide training facilities this year and Peterhead’s Score Group – which provides services to the North Sea oil and gas industry – stepped in with sponsorship for kit and training opportunities.

The involvement of local football clubs has been a real hook for the students. Every young person is entitled to a curriculum that meets their needs; the confidence, the sense of purpose and achievement this programme has given our PeterDeen scholars so far has been incredible.

The programme has proven to be a real success on paper, too, with attendance rates from participating pupils going from less than 40 per cent to more than 90 per cent.

I see a lot of similarities to my experience in Easterhouse in some of those young guys: breaking through that “hard man” facade and realising it is OK to achieve things, and to be part of something good. Some have picked up volunteer work through the programme and one has even got his foot in the door as a chef in training with a local restaurant.

Where do we go from here? We’re setting up in Fraserburgh – like nearby Peterhead, a fishing town that has its share of social problems – after the holidays and the end game is more football, more education and more passion for helping local young people to succeed.

The other close connection education has with football is that the most important aspect of its continued success is teamwork – you don’t win a match without working together.

Vincent Docherty is head of education at Aberdeenshire Council

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