Football and Education: What Does the Future hold for Wales?

In the last two parts of our study into the history of football's role in Welsh education we have looked at almost 150 years of stories and personal tales. In this piece, we are going to take a closer look at the direct role football, and indeed sport in general, has taken in the Welsh Curriculum. Since 2000, both football and education have evolved rapidly. Now, more than ever, sport is everywhere. Children and indeed parents and teachers cannot escape it. Such prominence in people's lives would suggest that in schools, games/P.E must take a central place in any curriculum. However, from experience, this is simply not always the case. With a new Welsh schools curriculum coming into practice in 2022 - what can be learned from the past to help create an inclusive and engaging environment for children and teachers?

Football in the Curriculum

So, let's go back to the early 2000s. Only recently devolved, education was put into the hands of the Welsh in 1999. Immediately, the new Welsh Assembly (now Government) were quick to ensure a focus on schools and young learners. Radical overhauls were promised: an eventual erradication of SATs; the introduction of a 'foundation phase'; and the use of a 'Welsh Baccalaureate' programme. Such measures proved promising to many, but it would take until 2008 to see them introduced.

Perhaps buoyed by an increase in televised football and the wider coverage of sport, the Welsh Assembly introduced their first 'strategy for sport' named 'Climbing Higher' in 2003. The paper held the primary aim of achieving 70% participation (men and women up to 65) and up to 90% (school aged children) in sport by 2023. The paper would state that the 'role that schools have to play in physical activity cannot be overstated'. Furthermore, it would seek to promote the wider social skills learned through sport (see image below). [1]


Climbing Higher did little to indicate which sports, in particular, that children enjoyed but did recognise how integral the success of the national football teams would be to the promotion of youth activity. Its 17th and 18th primary aims were to see both the men's and women's teams placed, eventually, in the top 24 ranked international sides. Although rugby is seen as the 'national sport', its role in achieving a top 5 ranking was somewhat downplayed as almost an inevitability. It appears that football was the real aim of the Welsh Goverment and due to higher levels of participation at grassroots level across the country, it is easy to see why. 

By 2008, Wales would finally implement its new curriculum. The earlier promises were kept and teachers and learners would look forward to developing a new sense of Welshness and identity in schools. Five years earlier, the proposed 'Curriculum Cymreig' included sport in its promotion of wider Welsh culture before the Wales, Europe and the Wider World paper was published.[2] Designed for 14-19 year olds, sport was offered a contextual opportunity for older learners to understand where Wales stood in the world.[3]

PE was also promised to play a key role in realising this, as well as promoting healthy eating and daily exercise outside of school. By focusing on the fundamental skills needed in sport, it was up to the teachers to decide which sport was necessary to fully accomplish the needs of the curriculum. This is where teacher preference took precedence over what learner's would prefer to do. For example, in the south of the country, rugby is king whereas in the north - football is generally the sport of choice. 

In 2013, Sports Wales published a paper which looked to understand the levels of participation of children in sport. It recognised the importance of sport in 'planting the seeds of lifelong participation...schools are central to this'. Furthermore, it was stated that 'a good school is one that values sport as part of a rounded curriculum'. From our own experience, we couldn't agree more. Promisingly, the research also found that, at a primary level, the use of sport is positive and inclusive. The largest cause for alarm came from the decline in enjoyment of sport as children reached secondary school, with girls in particular less inclined to participate.[4]




Participation in Football

But where does football fit into all of this? The same survey would write that the emergence of five-a-side centres across Wales had been of benefit, but also found room to criticise it for being over-advertised. This came as a response to the poor coverage offered to other sports in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 Olympics. Olympic legacy, huh? This goes some way to explaining why football is comfortably the most popular game in Wales amongst children. 

Sports Wales would continue with their schools survey for the rest of the decade, with 2018's results showing that 41% of males chose to participate in football as part of extra-curricular activity. For a 'rugby nation', this is an impressive amount considering rugby only saw 27%. The results of the survey would be welcomed by the FAW, but what was more crucial going forward was the levels of participation amongst females.

For girls, 21% chose football. This was 9% less than netball, but considerably more than rugby which failed to even reach the top ten sports. [5] Furthermore, it continued an upwards trend for just 14% in 2013. This is promising to see for football as the FAW has continued to encourage girls to openly take part in the game. Earlier in 2020, just before lockdown, participation levels in girl's football reached record levels. Growing 50% since 2016, 8600 females are now registered to clubs across Wales. Stressing a clear focus of 'fun and friendship', the FAW's 'Huddle' programme has worked wonders.[6] 

Local authorities would also receive a breakdown of the survey's results. The Vale of Glamorgan (in the south) saw levels of participation relatively similar to the national average, but also noted that 50% of boys would like to do more football.[7] Figures were almost identical in the Flintshire (north), with only a slight increase found in boys who would like more football (54%). The closeness in terms of the popularity of football (north and south) could be seen as relatively surprising given the classic notions of a football-loving north and a rugby-playing south.[8] 


Perhaps the growth in popularity of football in schools is due to the success of the national teams. Both the women's and men's sides have defied expectations in recent years to put Wales well and truly on the map. Despite prolonged success in rugby, the sheer scale of football around the world has helped put the spotlight on Welsh sport like never before. The men's side would reach the Euro 2016 semi-finals and qualify once more for the tournament in 2021. Achieving capacity crowds at the Cardiff City Stadium (with reasonable ticket prices for children) has only helped to provide youngsters with a piece of the action.

The women's team has also improved dramatically in the last 5 years. Led by former Arsenal midfielder Jayne Ludlow, the squad only narrowly missed out on qualification for the 2019 World Cup in front of over 5000 fans at Rodney Parade. It has been impressive to see the side, which features genuine world class talent in Jess Fishlock and Sophie Ingle, build on this near-miss to currently be second in their qualifying group for next year's Euros. Seeing Wales represented by both men and women at the highest level will only serve to inspire children over the next decade. Together with the hosting of major events like the 2017 Champions League Finals, the next generation have a set of national sides to genuinely be proud of. 

Curriculum 2022

Since 2014, Gareth and I have been working in schools. We have volunteered, become teaching assistants and eventually teachers. Upon asking children (primary age) what their favourite subject is - the answer has generally been, no matter where the school is - P.E. During my first teaching role in 2016 - I was asked to cover the leadership of P.E. for a teacher on maternity. However, it became clear early on as to the lack of focus offered to the subject by some schools in Wales.

With much of the current curriculum focused on both the Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF) and Digital Competency Framework (DCF), timetables seem intent of covering these areas, sometimes to the detriment of sport and physical exercise. This is not common across all schools, but in the ones that I have taught in, PE, alongside drama, art and music is often the first to go if an area of maths and English hasn't been covered or understood first time. 


The new curriculum (introduced in 2022) will hopefully change this. With schools across Wales being able develop their own curriculum's suited to their own unique contexts, we can keep our fingers crossed that senior leadership understand the integral role that football and sport plays in the lives of children across the nation. Based on six Areas of Learning Experience (AOLEs), Curriculum 2022 will see PE included in Health and Wellbeing. Promisingly, the early writing on the area specifies that physical activity is important to enable successful learning and later addresses the key skills that we can learn from sport - 
'By developing learners’ motivation, resilience, empathy and decision-making abilities, they can be supported to become ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives.

Learners can also be supported to become ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world by developing their ability to show respect, to value equity, to listen to others and to evaluate the social influences affecting them.'[9]

As we have previously written, sport in school is not limited to PE, however. Gareth has written in great detail of the need to use sports history as a means to contextualise skills being learnt in class and we can hope that future topics taught in primary classrooms use sport as a hook.[10] Although many schools will opt to radically change its contexts for learning, there will be a great many who, understandably, continue with the tried and tested - Tudors, Celts, Romans, Rivers etc. The study of sport can help to explain all areas of the future curriculum, not just 'Health and Wellbeing'. 

From experience, some of my best lessons, in terms of engagement, have been those with football at their heart. My first teaching interview featured a maths reasoning task based on the Welsh national team at Euro 2016 and later lessons have also evolved to include football's incredible history. One of these simply started with the question, 'how would you feel if you weren't allowed to play football?'. This would become part of a writing task in which my class composed empassioned letters of appeal to the FA over the 1921 ban on women's football. Football is more than just scorelines and mere physical excersise. It can explain so much of how and why society is the way it is - but uses a theme that children can relate to.

The future of football and education in Wales is certainly something to look out for. Nationwide, the game has never been so popular. Much of the credit can go to the successes of both the men and women's national teams but a great deal also goes to the increase in coverage of football, at times to the detriment of other popular sports. The School Sports Survey has been a vital resource to the planning of government and the promised boost in budget towards youth sport in Wales. We hope that this will feed into schools with new equipment and new opportunities for teachers and practitioners to be trained in how to properly teach stimulating PE lessons.

We are constantly told that football and sport are vital to the development of children, and the active encouragement of participation is crucial to achieving a lifelong love of physical activity. The new curriculum offers us a chance like never before to utilise sport in order to inspire an inclusive and engaging future for the children of Wales. 


Notes:

[1] Sport and Active Recreation in Wales, 2003
[2] Developing the Curriculum Cymreig, 2003
[3] Wales, Europe and the Wider World, 2009
[4] School Sports Survey, 2013
[5] School Sports Survey, 2018
[6] FAW, 'Sport Wales school survey response', FAW, 22 November 2018
[7] School Sports Survey - Vale of Glamorgan, 2018
[8] School Sports Survey - Flintshire, 2018
[9] 'Health and Wellbeing - Introduction, HWB, 2018
[10] Gareth Thomas, 'Sports History and the School Curriculum - An Important Relationship', The Football History Boys, 29 June 2019 

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