Shaping alternative education through sport

By Neil Rankin

Is there now an opportunity to use sport to shape the provision of alternative education in Scotland?

From the Commonwealth, to the United Nations to more local national governments there is a growing awareness of and pressure for sport to deliver broader social outcomes. The advent of a mandate within the new 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals provides the opportunity to advance not so much sport for sport goals but sport for broader social goals and outcomes.

Based upon the premise that sport can engage, motivate and inspire not just those on the margins, the rise of sport-plus programmes has created a burgeoning sport-for-development sector. An expanding international community exists comprised of NGO’s, private enterprise and policymakers driven by the role sport can play in social change. This particular piece of research focuses upon on how community football can help with educational attainment.

Sport for Change
Sport-for-change projects are often a response to declining social and economic conditions. Neoliberalism has seen a gradual decline in the state provision of services. Education and social welfare have witnessed a reduction in state funding with the consequence being that all alternatives need to be considered. A traditional one-size-fits-all approach to education is no longer accepted as the only way.

As sport is increasingly being used for social good, there begins to be opportunities for sport to play a more significant role in education. Sport-for-change organisations praise the characteristics of sport such as cooperation, respect and discipline. These characteristics can be influential in areas of lower social capital and where expanding educational opportunity and attainment is viewed as a Scottish Government priority.

A sport-based alternative model of using popular aspects of sport to deliver educational outcomes has proven to be successful in many international contexts. The value of such models is in the engagement strategies of educators and programme managers. The non-conformity of alternative education is important in engagement. Building trust and confidence to build sustained educational support necessitates the building of caring relationships that work for people.

The Everton Free School, England
In England, Government funded, but privately operated, academies have been established. In Liverpool, The Everton Free School-[http://www.evertonfreeschool.com/] opened in 2012.  This was a social responsibility programme delivered by Everton Football Club. The initial project was aimed at engaging the most vulnerable and disengaged young people within the community. There was a strong focus on working towards physical education and other sport-based qualifications. The school helps students advance academic qualifications in maths, English and science. The academy is next to the club stadium, the uniform is Everton FC tracksuits and staff embrace the informal education ideology. Sport is engrained in everything they do at the school.

Child Resiliency Programme, Jamaica
The Child Resiliency Programme in Jamaica uses sport-based interventions to engage “at-risk” youth. Young people are identified early in their educational pathway and are given additional support in their personal development. This project aims to divert youth toward positive destinations and increase their resiliency to anti-social and criminal pathways. This style of intervention is an example of informal education, whereby the emphasis is not on improving attainment rather developing the character of young people and improving outlook. This style of intervention builds on characteristics of sport – teamwork, respect, cooperation – that can be important in developing the character of participants. This is a common theme in many sport for development projects across the world.

Spartans Community Football Academy, Scotland 
Research conducted in 2016 sought to shed light on the place of Spartans Community Football Academy [http://www.spartanscfa.com/] (SCFA) in north Edinburgh. A selection of responses provide insight into thematic areas.There are parts of north Edinburgh that are within the most deprived 5-10% of Scotland. High crime and unemployment rates exist, fuelled by educational attainment challenges. Disengagement from mainstream education can be a result of many socioeconomic factors:

 

  • “for a lot of people growing up in our area to break the cycle they think they have to leave because of what there surrounded with are evidence and examples of like what living in poverty is and what it looks like”
  • “looking at how deprived our area is and it’s not just financially, its things like single parent families, or looked after children with no parents, employment, people in prison, substance abuse, and those kind of things which are causing deprivation in people’s lives. Granton and Pilton are in the lowest 10%”
  • “you’re coming from a place where you had to get yourself and your siblings ready for school ……….and you come in and you’re told to get excited about a flow chart”

There is, in some cases falsely, a polarization between communities that creates stigmas of social deprivation and areas being troublesome:

  • “you don’t get the opportunity to read much good news about young people in this area, it’s not celebrated, there’s loads of young people in this area doing brilliant things, but there’s a small minority that are up to mischief that get a disproportionate amount of media coverage”

Since 2008, SCFA have been delivering community outreach programmes in north Edinburgh. They use their position as a local football club to engage young people in the area. SCFA recognise the popularity of football, and other sports, to young people in the area. The organisation advocates the positive impacts sport can have on development:

  • “I think you can learn a lot of life skills through sport in terms of respect and cooperation”
  • “sport is a great leveller, and it helps build communication between people”
    “sport is a fantastic tool for providing teamwork, companionship, common purpose, common goal, fitness, healthy living, healthy lifestyle, there so much, anything you can think of that can provide you endorphins can come through sport … it’s a way to channel emotions”

The attributes of the SCFA model align with theories of alternative education. Staff are recruited based on their background and personal ideologies on the provision of education. The complex consists of two full-size artificial football pitches:

  • “I think even just coming to a place like this with the big pitches is more engaging, it doesn’t seem like a school for them”

Creating a different environment also helps to break down barriers that previously existed between young people in deprived areas and wider society:

  • “the social work, the schools, the police and all those organisations were the enemy….. we have youth workers in the school, we have police at the youth centre, we all dovetail together so that you can say that the youth workers are at the school so therefore the youth centres are not bad therefore the schools are not bad so therefore it breaks down the enemy status”

The pupils also have a bigger say in the way lessons are delivered and what they learn about:

  • “if they are interested in Hearts FC then they can base their project they have to do for English around that which engages them a lot more”

The smaller class sizes at the alternative school support learning by giving teachers more time to spend with each pupil, meaning that each individual has the support he or she needs to focus and to understand the content of their curriculum:

  • “but it’s different from going and being in a room with 20 odd other kids and having to do a subject they have no interest in … they get more attention one to one most of the time, sometimes I maybe had two, then they would go and maybe do something with the youth worker, and what was really good as well was the rest of it, it wasn’t just Maths and English, they were learning to cook”

Overall, the programme managers and staff at SCFA recognise that the students they work with are no less talented than those in mainstream education. This is not a question about ability but about opportunity and support. The difference is the students get bespoke time and attention to help them with the development of education through the popular medium of football. For some this could be one of the first times that an adult in their life has shown belief in their abilities:

  • “it’s about how do you have different options that can coexist for young people that means every young person has got a potential pathway that allows them to develop and grow”
  • “I would say this pupil needs a bit of significant other support and they get paired once a week with a youth worker, we’ve had youth workers in the school, that’s something that the youth centre network is very good at – just creating that familiarisation”
  • “we have a transitions coordinator who will be in meetings at primary school and bring them though just to try and give them some stability and structure and continuity in their lives”

SCFA are providing a real service to the local community by attempting to enhance educational as this can have knock-on effect of improving employment prospects and reducing crime. The organisation are currently operating as a social enterprise but it is an aspiration to have their vision supported by the City of Edinburgh Council.

  • “we need to convince the local authority that we have a service and product worth paying for, that our proposition delivers results for these young people and its worth investing their pupil premium, I actually think we can get more for their money as well”

There is increasing recognition that a one size fits all approach to education is outdated in the 21st century. Education continues to be a major political issue in Scotland and across the UK. Alternative methods are being looked at by governments and the third sector across the globe. Harnessing the engaging power of sport could be an innovative and progressive method in developing alternative places to learn.

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