I’m sure those who are more the sporty type may recognise the football reference this time round. These are mooching, introspective times for English football. Never has our national game been richer or more popular. Never has it been more widely and scathingly maligned.
The failure of the national side to make more than a modest dent at any major tournament in the last generation has been compounded by the eclipsing of our top club sides at European level. In last season’s Champions League, the world’s leading club competition, no English team made it beyond the last 16. Other nations have streaked ahead in terms of tactics, training and governance. To be involved in English football these days is akin to being a BBC television presenter in the 1970s – not condemnable in itself, but certainly enough to make folk a bit suspicious.
And yet from English soil rise great English monuments, symbolising a determination to thrive. The new national football academy at St George’s Park in Staffordshire was acclaimed as one of the finest training facilities in the world when it was opened last month. The redeveloped Wembley Stadium may have cost an arm, a leg and several bureaucratic red faces, but it is built, it is ours and it is magnificent. As the sun sets on the ”golden generation’’, attention now turns to the next generation. English football is in a fight for its own relevance, and its next frontier is the classroom.
Well why is a teacher talking about football? What’s this got to do with education? Well, we have Free Schools to thank (oh god). Manchester City and Everton are just two of the Premier League clubs who have taken advantage of the Coalition’s education reforms to open their own free schools. Connell Sixth Form College in east Manchester opened its doors to 60 students last month, with the aim of taking on 300 pupils from some of the most deprived areas in the region.
Everton Free School, located at four sites across Merseyside, has been going for more than a year now and was recently named as one of the best football community programmes in Europe. Tottenham Hotspur, meanwhile, are sponsoring a new technical college in north-east London, in partnership with Middlesex University, that accepts its first intake in September 2014.
The idea of a football club running a school conjures up all sorts of surreal images: keepie-uppies in the corridors, perhaps, or children being tested on their knowledge of historic FA Cup winners. The reality is a little more prosaic. These are regular schools, with the odd twist. Like the long-standing Ashton-on-Mersey school in Sale, which is sponsored by Manchester United (BOO), setting up a school gives football clubs a certain stake in the education of their young players. The likes of Gerard Pique, Danny Welbeck and Jonny Evans were schooled at Ashton-on-Mersey while youth team players at United, eventually graduating to the first-team, international honours and — in Pique’s case — a World Cup win.
Similarly Connell, which is in the process of building a brand-new campus just a stone’s throw away from City’s Etihad Stadium, provides the club’s apprentices with their own tailored education. “Their teaching is very much within a flexible timetable, around their training sessions,” says Gillian Winter, the principal of Connell, which is run in partnership with the Brights Future Educational Trust. “The great advantage of our college is that we do have extended days, so three times a week our college is open until 8.15pm. That means that the elite athletes can come in after the end of the official college day and do independent study, guided by the teachers. Then there are things like the virtual learning environment, which allows athletes to access their studies anywhere in the world. Even if they get sent to Japan or South Africa, for instance, they can continue their studies in their hotel room or wherever.”
The curriculum, almost surprisingly, is not geared towards a sporting existence. “We offer PE, we offer level-three BTEC sports science, but essentially what these athletes tell us is that they want to study an academic curriculum that they would have had access to had they stayed at school,” says Winter. “Because if they don’t make it in sport, they need something to fall back on. And we are providing them with the education which will allow them to achieve if they don’t make it in their chosen sport.”
The benefits for regular students are both tangible and intangible. “Elite athletes are always very well-disciplined people,” says Winter. “They’ve been exposed to a variety of experiences that our students haven’t necessarily done. But they can share those with our students, which is opening their eyes to horizons beyond college. That’s one tremendous plus.”
Meanwhile, the revelation that some Connell students were offered free tickets for the Champions League home game against European champions Bayern Munich last month will be enough to have every Light Blue kid in Manchester pestering their parents to get them in. And yet competition for places is expected to be fierce. Entry requirements are currently five GCSEs at A*-C grade, with at least two at grade B, and passes in Maths and English.
Prospective students at Everton Free School undergo psychological profiling from the school’s resident psychologist to assess their suitability for admission. The school’s motto mirrors that of the football club: “Nothing but the best”.
This may not be education for the masses – class sizes are kept low in order give each child a tailored learning experience. But footballing free schools are anything but elitist. Rather, they offer aspiration for children who have frequently been failed by the education system.
Before Connell opened, east Manchester was virtually devoid of half-decent sixth-form colleges. A bright 16-year-old with designs on going to Oxbridge from Droylesden or Gorton, say, was faced with the choice of travelling miles for their further education or dropping out of school altogether. “What we found when we looked at the demographics and we looked at what young people were doing was that some of them were having to travel a long way for an academic education,” Winter says. “Others just went into a job, which of course this year they can’t do. It has brought academic aspiration into east Manchester, which is tremendous, really.”
Or as Jim Battle, deputy leader of Manchester city council, said at the time Connell secured its funding: “Regeneration should be indelibly linked with aspiration.”
So, how does all this help our football clubs? One of the reasons Premier League teams reacted so enthusiastically to the free school movement is linked to the existing football academy system. Because of their studies, school-age footballers aged nine to 16 currently receive about five hours of training a week – far behind their counterparts in France, the Netherlands or Spain, where 15-20 hours of training a week are generally the norm.
It is during these formative years that other nations have opened up a gap on us. The humiliating performance of the England under-21 team at the European Championships this summer underlined the rawness of our young footballers, and the need for an education system that optimises their athletic potential. In return, regular students are infused with a little of sport’s ruthless quest for excellence. In short, everybody wins; one day, possibly even the England football team.