Football and Education: Class, Identity and the Dunce Hat (Full)

Since we started writing on our blog, The Football History Boys, we have occasionally found it difficult to write new pieces on a regular basis. The main reason for this has been our jobs, both of which lie in education. My current class will often discuss football and the results of the weekend, showing the same engagement with the game as Gareth and I had. The history of education, at least at a state level, follows a remarkably similar timeline to that of football. With only a decade or so apart, both education and the beautiful game have seen a century and a half of immense change socially, politically and economically. There is little doubt that education and football have a closer relationship than we might think. But how close? In this piece, we will take a closer, narrative look at how the game grew into the sport of schoolboys and girls across the nation. Against a backdrop of, at times, antiquated colonial beliefs, two world wars and social revolution in the 1960s, how has this relationship developed? Alongside the recreational games of the playground, how have school football teams changed and are they as important to the school as they are to the individual? Throughout this piece, the themes of class, identity and gender will be evident as football’s role in schools develops. Furthermore, we will look at the ever-altering expectations of teachers throughout the period. Finally, we will see how the modern education system has affected children’s passion for the sport. From our own teaching experiences, is football still relevant to children and can it retain an active role in classroom practice? Is there a difference in feelings towards the football in P.E. and that on the playground? This is a topic which throws up a wealth of questions – all of which we will try to answer.


It is perhaps easiest to start at the beginning. In 1863 the Football Association was born. Through its founders, we can immediately see the impact education had on this formation. Eleven clubs primarily made up of public school alumni met at a pub in London to implement a consistent and clear set of rules. Indeed, the playing of football had been common before this date, only with a variety of rules dependent on which school you were at. This, however, does not explain how football had already conquered the schools in the first place. In the mid-19th Century, Britain was in a small crisis. Following the Napoleonic Wars and the gradual growth of the British Empire, a lack of armed conflict led to a steep decline in fitness, teamwork and morals, particulary in schools. Public schools began to place great importance on the role of physical education during this time, each with distinct motivations - be it social control or idealism.[1] Football had started being played in schools as early as 1829, where it is documented in the Hampshire Chronicle that St Thomas' School played against Archbishop's Temple School - winning 8-3.[2] The rules these two schools and many others played with is a mystery, but what is known is that upon reaching university, confusion was rife. The fluctuation in rules from school to school meant a universal system needed to be adopted. We can see this clearly through the Cambridge Rules in 1848.

Public School Alumni - The Royal Engineers
The 1850s saw Britain heavily involved in the Crimean War. Although fought on the Crimean peninsula between predominately the Russian and Ottoman Empires, Great Britain played its part from 1854. The conflict ended in victory for the United Kingdom following events like the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Siege of Sevastopol. Prior to this, a lack of professionalism and moral values led to a change in domestic policy – starting with schools. J.A Mangan’s work into the role of public schools in the Victorian era is perhaps the most useful. Mangan cites the change in scholars as a key contributor in the reimagining of what a good public schoolboy should be. The introduction of Henry Walford to Lancing School brought with it first and foremost ‘compulsory games’ and a “new generation of headmasters who were not simply scholars, but games players.”[3] Eventually, football was being played regularly in most schools and some universities, but the question of rules would continue to be asked for the coming years. It is easy to find newspaper articles which discuss the complications in football rules, but by 1863 these differences had been ironed out and the game we know today was born. Martin Polley writes that the impact of football on the individual meant that following university, the continuation of playing the game helped disseminate the game to the wider public.[4] Football could ‘teach courage, purity, loyalty and manly prowess”.

It is commonplace to read about the public school influence but what about the state schools? British history is one defined by class and identity and it was not until 1870 that Forster's Elementary Education Act proposed education for all children 5 to 12. A year later saw the first FA Cup and by 1872, the first international between England and Scotland. The working-classes by this point were captivated by the game, as spectatorship rapidly rose. Education in the late Victorian/early Edwardian period was very strict. Classes taught would focus on the 3 R's (reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic). By 1880 - school became mandatory with days lasting from 9 am to 12 pm, before the children returned from 2 pm to 5 pm. Corporal punishment and the infamous 'dunce' cap were commonplace in the classroom. PE was not taught - instead, drills were exercised by the sides of the children's desks.

So where does football fit in? Children were indeed spectators of the beautiful game themselves. Adrian Harvey has written about the attendance of children at games as early as 1867. For Harvey, ‘social parameters were being pushed back’.[5] Spectating at a match between local rivals is sure to have left a lasting impression on some children who would be sure to start playing the game themselves. What is important to note is that this was happening even before the introduction of state schools. The gathering collection of different social groups at football matches would have surely helped the working-class’ case for acceptance. According to Phil Brown, the inclusion of children in education from 1870 helped in another way. Through the 3Rs, this would breed a new kind of football fan. Those who could read and write. For journalists and those who work in print – a new way to tap into the hearts and minds of children was opened.[6] The effects would be noticeable by the rise of the match-day programme and later, through the decades, the annual and eventual sticker album.

English Schoolboys

By 1903 - football had become the game of the working class. Although still operated by the ever-growing middle classes, the common man had taken the game to his heart like no other. In northern towns especially, this was noticeable. The Bolton News reported an incident during this year which shows the hold football had on communities and even schools.


'The chairman of the Stoke United School Board, the Rev. E. H. Simpkinson. sanctioned for the schools in Stoke and Fenton to be closed at three, being an hour earlier than the custom on the day of Nottingham Forest and Stoke met in the Cup, "To secure the safety of the children, and to keep up the attendance.” The action came in for criticism at the meeting of the Board. The Rev. Hon. H. L. Tyrwhitt asked whether the Board would not be supplied with a list of skittle matches and similar fixtures for which they would postpone Education. The chairman denied it was postponing education.'[7]

So here we have school hours being changed to suit the growing desire for football, but was the playing and discussion of the beautiful game continuing in the classroom? It was only a matter of time before football was introduced to some schools, most notably in the urban smoke of London. The allegiances to the different clubs of interest offered some children an identity which teachers had struggled to instill through other means.[8] Football was often encouraged as an extra-curricular activity due to the lack of city-space. It can be seen that some teachers would even pay out of their own pockets for schoolboys to be able to play football against other schools. What is most surprising to historian Colm Kerrigan is the lack of historical recognition of football in schools. Surely the opportunity for outdoor healthy exercise should have been praised at the time, indeed it was almost forgotten.


By the First World War - Football was beginning to grow into elementary schools. In 1907 it can even be seen in the Cornwall Advertiser that councils were starting to offer grants for football and playing fields in local schools.[9] In 1924, we can see that a school football team was a source of school pride and some children were even being kept on past the age of 12, purely to play the game. This is not too far removed from some modern day scholarships. The question was: Were some schools putting football before education?[10] This shows it wasn't always plain sailing for the beautiful game. In 1915, during the First World War, an open letter to the Western Mail complains about the allowance of some Cardiff schoolboys to play football. For the writer, the fact that some children were missing a couple of lessons could have a damming impact in the war against the Germans. The letter signs off 'EDUCATION BEFORE FOOTBALL' before explaining that letting children play football in school will lead to them becoming 'street wastrels'.[11] This piece is surely sensationalized due to the stress of war, but it can be seen in other articles during this time. Richard Holt writes that casual games in the street were not encouraged during this time, but children would always find a way in 'vacant plots, brick-fields and any open place to play the game, even though the football could be a bundle of tightly rolled-up string-bound papers'. Football was these children's lives, just as it is today.[12]

Wartime Footy

The education system in Britain would take on some changes around this time. Most notably due to the resultant ‘war generation’ of children. Social change was to be seen with the suffrage of women over the age of 30 and attitudes towards women would slowly change. This was noticeably the case following the success of the Dick, Kerr Ladies football team. Their influence on women is staggering. In fact, by 1921 we can see articles appearing to suggest the formation of girls’ teams in elementary schools. The Hartlepool Daily Mail makes note of the side and references its match against the school’s male equivalent. The result – a 2-2 draw was a sure sign than girls’ football had undergone a massive transformation.[13] So huge in fact, that the FA’s decision to ban women from FA affiliated grounds became even more desperate. Girls were being actively discouraged from participation. Nevertheless, in other “more feminine” sports, the interwar period can be seen as generally radical for women's sport in Britain - an increase in participation and a more specific scheme of work in schools meant it was becoming more accessible.[14] Ultimately, in working-class schools, football had been left behind in this broadening of female sport.

The graph clearly shows the decline in girls’ participation in football. A simple keyword search into the era reflects the attitudes towards female football. Although socially speaking, female rights progressed during this era – this was not reflected in the inclusion of girls in football. In 1920 – there is less than 100 articles difference, but a decade later over 200 articles more are dedicated to the writing of boys’ football. What this does show, however, is that boys’ football was remaining a consistent feature of British society. By the 1930s, it would continue to grow and the success of schools’ teams is well documented in the archives. The Hull Daily Mail makes note of a side’s victories in June 1931 – writing that they should be taken in by local professional clubs.[15]

The Second World War. Children were thrown into this conflict like no other in history. Today, in schools up and down the country, we learn about the evacuation of millions of children to the safety of rural Britain, but rarely do we hear about football. In 1940, The Bognor Regis Observer ran an evacuee column to 'link the district and evacuated areas'. A piece from March that year records an 'Evacuee football match played at a high school ground'. Immediately we can see that football was a source of relief in new surroundings.[16] Furthermore, we can see the impact of football on evacuees by the creation of an evacuee school league in December 1939. Such leagues began to be commonplace as football remained a constant amidst mass change. For many, offering the opportunity to play football was a chance to make evacuees, “feel at home”.[17] Perhaps our favourite story from the era comes from the Northern Whig in 1941.[18] Long before Theresa May was causing havoc in fields of wheat - evacuees were caught kicking footballs around in different farmers' crops, much to their anger. For many children introduced to the rural community, it was their first taste of the countryside.[19]

c.1930s street football

The number of articles regarding school football takes a significant decrease over this period. It is unsurprising given the wider situation and the suspension of the Football League. On the other hand, we can still see the influence of football in schools throughout the conflict. Some leagues continued to be played and cup competitions were commonplace. Changing children’s lives and routines in such widespread disruption could have had a detrimental effect on their wellbeing.


Once the war was over, the reconstruction of the country was its top priority. The new Labour government under the stewardship of Clement Attlee was to bring welfare to the forefront of their agenda. It can be seen that the Football Association was keen for the ministry for education to develop football pitches in schools following the successful conclusion of the war. Holt and Mason have written about this as they recognise the importance of the 1944 Education Act. The introduction of a ‘Ministry of Education’ meant that authorities now had a responsibility to provide facilities for sport and physical education.[20] By the 1950s, the country was to undergo significant change. Consumerism was to take over as income improved amidst mass technological advances. In schools, we can see how Football League players were beginning to gain 'superstar' status. For Matthew Taylor, the use of guest players in war-time friendlies was a precursor to these 'icons.' Children were beginning to idolise different players and playground conversation was very much football-based.[21] Critcher notes the changing social climate towards footballers and the removal of the maximum wage subsequently raised footballers to new levels of ‘adulation and attention’. There is little doubt that children would have been their greatest fans.[22]

The 1950s were also essential to the growth of schools’ football. In 1950, a match between the English and Scottish schools attracted 50,000 spectators at Wembley. Within a year, coaching courses had been offered to teachers by the ESFA and FA. This gave teachers the opportunity to practice coaching technique and bring what they had learned back to their respective schools.[23]

"Whether played as a game, as a chance to perfect one's 'skills', to discuss one's favourite team, or simply to act out the part of TV commentator, football remains a permanent popular feature in the ever-transient environment of the playground."[24]

The following decade is probably one in which the entire twentieth century can be defined. The 1960s were more than just a ten-year period. From Beatlemania to the English World Cup victory, it represented a social revolution. Peter Chapman's brilliant 'Out of Time' gives us an in depth insight to the period and how football dominated many a schoolboy's attention. Chapman recalls school playground conversations which led to him collecting autographs, buying football annuals and attending matches.[25] Football in lesson time would continue to evolve too. By now, physical education was commonplace in the syllabus. P.E. however, was not always met with much enthusiasm. Perhaps this is best shown by the outstanding scene from Ken Loach's 'Kes' in which a school teacher takes a P.E. lesson far too seriously, leading to the disillusionment of his class. Whereas young lads were being given the opportunity to play the game in PE, the same cannot be said for girls at the same time. Indeed, the female game was still banned from FA pitches as part of a draconian 40 year ban.


For young women, the formation of the WFA in 1969 was a start in a shifting public attitude. Two years later the ban was lifted and a women's cup final took place. In schools, however, a lack of football would be the source of frustration for many. Historically speaking, it is difficult to find many articles concerning girls’ football at school level. However, this is not to say it is totally a redundant area of football and education. The writing around the subject is fairly sporadic until the aforementioned lifting of the ban, but after 1969 the slow growth in articles at least shows some positive impact the sport has had on young women. The Coventry Evening Telegraph notes that upon watching a girls’ game in 1971, “some of the tackling would have made some of the men wince”.[26]

Women’s football in schools retains a similar narrative to women’s history in general. It is one of struggle and of subjugation to the will of others. Jean Williams is quick to realise this as she writes that girls’ football was as less in evidence then as it is now.[27] Perhaps a hyperbole with regards to modern inclusion, but it shows the century-long frustration towards female involvement in football. Through her extensive research, Williams does recognise that girls still played football in schools as early as the 1890s, albeit far less frequently than their male counterparts. The ESFA as previously mentioned was essential to boys’ football in Britain, but Williams is quick to argue that only after the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and 16 more years of confusion, did girls’ football finally get some recognition. It is only really after 1991 that newspaper articles surrounding girls’ football increased.[28]

Girls playing football around 1940

Unfortunately, even in schools today it is rare to see girls playing football during lessons, having to wait until after school instead. It is no doubt something which the present Football Associations of Britain will look to change. A government report from 2006 on Women's football discusses in detail the frustrations of girls since the 1960s. Early on, it is quick to recognise the lack of a “clear pathway for girls to play football through primary school…and beyond.”[29] The report continues to note the power of the teacher on integrating a girls’ team. If there is no interested teacher, there is only a slim chance of the local primary school acting as a hub for female football. It is vital then, that more support is offered to primary schools and indeed their staff in order to help fund female football programmes. It cannot be argued that girls get less out of the sport than boys, or that their male counterparts enjoy it more than them. The future of women’s football in schools is certainly one to watch.

P.E vs The Playground

Towards the end of the century, football was still a keen aspect of school life. The introduction of more collectibles, magazines and advertisements with footballers meant it was almost impossible to ignore. We can still remember the sheer joy of ripping open a new packet of stickers and taking them into school to swap. In 1970 Panini released its World Cup Album which took school playgrounds by storm. Soon the words - were as commonplace as maths, science and history.

"Back then, the word Panini called to mind not a grilled sandwich, but the ferverish swapping of stickers that went on in British schoolyards and collectors' back rooms."[30]

The sticker addiction is usually followed by mass hysteria on the playground and eventually the classroom. It is always only a matter of time before a school bans them from the grounds due to bust ups and ‘annoyed teachers’. Stickers brought children closer to their heroes like nothing before it. It is not hard to find a wealth of articles, and even books, dedicated to the memories.

“Instantly, I'm back in 1986 and my penultimate year at primary school, when the most important thing in my life was how an England squad featuring Gary Lineker, Peter Shilton and John Barnes would fare at the World Cup.”[31]

What this shows is that football was these children’s lives. If there was, and still is, any way to tap into a child’s imagination, the use of football as a relatable context may be a good bet to make. It is not all joyful nostalgia, however. In fact for some, football in school was the source of frustration. Actor Mathew Horne, a self-professed football fanatic writes about his experience with football and PE in the 1980s,

"Physical Education - wow, am I glad I don't have PE today. Or any other day until I die. I mean, as an adult male I run, I play five-a-side and I play badminton. I swim most weeks too. But PE at school was awful. When I go to hell, I imagine it's just going to be PE, surrounded by fire. The alarm clock in hell will be a size-four moulded Mitre football, straight from the freezer, pumped up like Rick Waller and blasted onto my goosebumped thigh at approximately minus-374 degrees centigrade."[32]

Indeed, the BBC ran an article in 2010 – asking for people’s personal stories with regards to their P.E experience – was it heaven or hell? It continues to note the social stigma of P.E/Games lessons in the 60s and 70s, “the picking of teams. An opportunity to further make life miserable.” What is goes on to explain is that a lot of what made football unenjoyable around this time comes from the teacher.[33] By the late 1970s, there was a shift in how sport and more specifically, football, was taught in schools. It became less about competition and more to do with social inclusion. Barrie Houlihan and Mick Green write that the 1980s saw the first signs of active involvement from P.E. and sports organisations in school sport. They continue to note that following a ‘moral panic’ about the state of P.E in schools, there is no doubt that the profile of school sport has risen ever since.[34]

Not everyone loved PE!

The harsh and strict nature of P.E is surely the memory for many other people’s experience of
school. Writing this piece seems to have split football and education into two separate categories. There is the football of the playground - where children are left to their own devices - kicking around a ball, a bottle or collecting stickers. Then there is the football of PE. Physical Education in schools seems to have promoted a distaste for the game rather than a love for it. Furthermore, the attitude of the modern footballer towards the game in school showed the importance of playground kickabouts. Former Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, makes it clear that lessons were just breaks in between matches.[35]

“I was always throwing myself around, covering myself in dirt. I lived for those moments. Lessons were just dead time between games.”


We can still see this P.E/Playground split today. Houlihan and Green’s writing in 2006 about the risen profile of P.E. is to be argued in the current educational landscape. The future of football and education, for the time being, seems that overcrowded classes and the constant need for data, paperwork and figures mean that football is being pushed to one side. From my own teaching experience, the failure of many schools to even properly teach PE/Games is a travesty in itself. Walk into any primary classroom and ask the children what their favourite subject is, and over half of them will say P.E. In England and especially in Wales, with the constant need to plan towards the Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF), the learning of other key subjects is diluted by skills in English and Maths. Alongside annual testing in English and Maths from the ages of 7-14 – it is no wonder that sport is losing its status in education. It is not deemed essential enough. There is no grading in PE, therefore there is no data and therefore, who cares?

"(Wendy Owen) suggested that PE in general in primary school was “in crisis” as it was no longer a compulsory ingredient of training courses for primary school teachers"[36]

Today, children are no different. Football is still a source of immense joy and identity to thousands of boys and girls. The current education system can learn a lot from football and other sports for that matter which encourages teamwork, acceptance and a growth mindset. It is great to see the Premier League introduce their 'Primary Stars' programme which teaches skills in maths and English through the context of football. According to their website, “Premier League Primary Stars uses the appeal of the Premier League and professional football clubs to inspire children to learn, be active and develop important life skills.” It is essential that teachers and support staff use the draw of the game to inflame the imaginations of children across the UK.[37] Football and education is a relationship even closer than we know. At secondary level, much is needed to be done to improve the numbers of GCSE entrants for P.E – the number is far lower than it should be, as other, more ‘academic’ subjects like chemistry continue to increase.

What is important to mention is the role football clubs are playing in the education of children. In the modern era, football clubs arguably have a greater level of influence on children than schools do. Clubs like Liverpool, Southampton and Manchester City all boast exceptional areas for development in the game. What is important to note, however, is the gradual change in the mindset of these institutions in recent years, towards education alongside football. The chances of an academy player ‘making it’ at a big club is increasingly slim, so teams are beginning to focus on academia in order to provide those who do not make the cut with a career path. The FEFA academy, set up by Robbie Fowler, is a perfect example of this. The school takes on young players who have been released or need an academic push and promotes the continuation of education through university, college and vocational qualifications.[38] In addition to this, schools and colleges in some areas are using football as a way to enthuse children with learning. The Ellesmere College in London boasts a football academy which, “ensures that each student player dedicates the same commitment, perseverance and personal discipline to academic achievement as they do to football success.”[39] It is brilliant to see, but what it also creates is an ever-increasing gap between private and state-funded education.

What does the future hold for football in state-funded education?

Children love sport. Children love to play sport. We can only hope that in the years to come it will take a more active role in any curriculum. Children can learn so much from it too - the most obvious would be teamwork and leadership. However, perhaps its greatest asset is it teaches us to deal with failure. You don't always win in football, but you learn from it. You learn how to approach situations differently, a skill which can be applied in each and every subject. It is clear that football played a significant role in the rise of working-class culture in Britain. Indeed, its popularity also led to an upper-class decline in terms of sport and amateurism. There is a correlation between education and football. The growth of elementary schools coincided with the rise of professionalism and working-class spectators. Football offered children allegiances for the first time and an identity which kids could not relate to before the sport's invention. The use of the game in schools has always been a source of local pride, a tradition which continues to this day. On the other hand, the discouragement in the participation of girls and young women is also one of its greatest failures. Much is needed to be done in order to encourage participation and inclusion amongst young girls. Football and education is a relationship which needs to be brought closer together. You do not need to have one without the other. Football is not a threat to academic practice. Furthermore, by using the draw and appeal of the sport, children can have a meaningful context to their work and one about which they are enthusiastic. What is clear is that children, left to their own devices, will always play the game on the playground, and will always discuss the weekend's games with friends. Despite the state and schools’ continued efforts to push football and other recreational sports to one side, football has always been, and will continue to be, at the heart of education.

[1] John Macaloon Muscular Christianity and the Colonial and Post-Colonial World, (Oxon: Routledge, 2013)
[2] Hampshire Chronicle, 1829
[3] J.A. Mangan, Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School, (Oxon: Routledge, 2000)
[4] Martin Polley, The History of Sport in Britain 1880-1914, (Oxon: Routledge, 2004)
[5] Adrian Harvey, Football: The First Hundred Years, (Oxon: Routledge, 2005)
[6] Paul Brown, A History of Football Fans, (Durham: Goalpost, 2013)
[7] Bolton Evening News - Thursday 05 March 1903
[8]  Colm Kerrigan, Teachers and Football: Schoolboy Association Football in England, 1885-1915, (Oxon: Routledge, 2005)
[9] West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, Thursday 28 February 1907 
[10] Western Mail, Thursday 18 February 1915 
[11] Western Morning News - Monday 22 December 1924
[12] Richard Holt, Sport and the British, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)
[13] Hartlepool Daily Mail, 1921
[14] Jennifer Hargreaves, Routledge Book of Sport, Gender and Sexuality, (Oxon: Routledge, 2014)
[15] Hull Daily Mail, 1931
[16] Bognor Regis Observer, 1940
[17] Mid-Sussex Times, 12 September 1939
[18] Eastbourne Post, 1939
[19] Northern Whig, 1941
[20] Richard Holt and Tony Mason, Sport in Britain 1945-2000, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000)
[21] Matthew Taylor, The Association Game, (Oxon: Routledge, 2013)
[22] Charles Critcher, Football Since the War, (Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 1973)
[25] Peter Chapman, Out of Time, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016)
[26] Coventry Evening Telegraph, 1972
[27] Jean Williams, A Game for Rough Girls? A History of Women’s Football in Britain, (Oxon: Routledge, 2003)
[28] Williams, 2003
[33] BBC, 2010
[34] The changing status of school sport and physical education: explaining policy change, Institute of Sports and Leisure Policy, Barrie Houlihan and Mick Green, 2006
[35] Steven Gerrard, My Autobiography, (London: Bantam Press, 2006)

[38] FEFA Academy

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