Since creating The Football History Boys in 2013, one of our greatest passions has been our drive to get football into education. We both believe the beautiful game can help to create meaningful and engaging contexts for children to learn. With this in mind, I was able to use football in order to help contextualise my class' recent topic centred on sustainability and climate change. The foundations for learning was to be found through the incredible work undertaken by Gloucestershire club, Forest Green Rovers.
Teaching in Newport and given the rivalry between the two clubs, Forest Green Rovers may be the last club you would expect a teacher from the south east of Wales to be teaching their class about. However, after reading a number of articles highlighting the positive and progressive nature of the ''World's first Vegan club", this was an opportunity my class couldn't miss out on.
When explaining to my class of year 5 children that we would be using football as our focus for the summer term, I saw their faces light up as their imaginations ran wild. The same faces dropped, however, when I explained that it would not be Liverpool, Manchester City or United we were studying, but a small club just 50 minutes down the road called Forest Green Rovers. My first question to them all was, 'what do you know about Forest Green Rovers?' and the room (for the first time all year!) fell silent.
It was clear that my lessons would need to immediately 'hook' the learners. I used three quick YouTube videos to provide my class with some of the fundamentals of the club. Each child took notes on what they heard and fed back what they had learned to the rest of the class. It became clear early on that there was four main elements of the club that we wanted to discover more about:
- Energy (Carbon Footprint)
- Vegan Diet
- Stadium (Sustainability)
One of the most influential ways in which Forest Green Rovers are changing the world is in their energy use. Indeed, the club's sponsor Ecotricity provides 100% clean renewable energy and carbon neutral gas. Looking out of the classroom window, my class are fortunate enough to have a view overlooking the entirety of east Newport. Directing the learner's attention to this saw their eyes fixated on an image which highlights the change of energy use in South Wales. Giant sustainable wind turbines now interrupt the tall chimneys which previously provided the city with its industry. This immediately appeared the motivate the children that what they were learning was not merely about futuristic visions, but real tangible change happening now, right on their doorstep.
After sorting through renewables and non-renewables and understanding the advantages and disadvantages of both, the class was astounded by some of the information they retrieved from a variety of websites.
"Burning coal produces carbon dioxide gas. This is a greenhouse gas that contributes towards climate change. Burning coal pollutes the air. In fact, coal is the worst pollutant we have."
What teachers love to hear from their class as a topic progresses are questions that inspire future lessons. Pupil voice was instrumental in our study of Forest Green Rovers and for many learners the phrase 'Carbon Footprint' engaged their curiosities. After drawing a large green footprint in their books and providing a detailed explanation of the term, the children went on to analyse and discuss the footprints of many leading football clubs from across Europe.
Using a diamond 9 format to rank nine different clubs proved an effective means to see which teams were leading the way in terms of sustainability and a greener future. Blending our learning with ICT and incorporating the Digital Competency Framework (DCF) was essential to the success of the topic. This was seen clearly in this lesson as learners used data from Sport Positive Leagues to inform and justify their decisions . Naturally, Forest Green Rovers came out on top (24/24), but sides like Liverpool (Premier League's 'greenest club' 2022 & 2023) and Manchester City also scored highly. Perhaps the most disappointing of all was that their local club - Newport County featured at the bottom of most diamond 9s with a meagre score of 2.5/24. Including clubs from across Europe also helped the children to understand the attitudes to sustainability in football on the continent. German clubs (we used Bayern Munich) scored highly whereas French sides (PSG) performed disappointingly.
Perhaps the most notable and striking element of Forest Green Rovers is in their unique status as a vegan football club. Despite vegan diets becoming increasingly prevalent in the UK, my class was unfamiliar with the idea. Growing up in an area of high social deprivation, such diets are unfortunately difficult to achieve. It was clear that the majority of the learners had a negative understanding of the word vegan and were sceptical as to its benefits. An initial research task provided the children with an opportunity to read for themselves the environmental impact of a vegan and non-vegan diet.
"Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day"
Following this research, some of the class began to comprehend just how damaging a meat-heavy (in particular beef heavy) diet can be. After explaining to my class that vegan products are increasingly common in local supermarkets, I decided to provide the learners with the opportunity to try some for themselves. On the menu was:
- Oatly oat milk
- Squeaky Bean ham
- Gosh! Veggie sausages
- Happi free from oat milk and white chocolate
- Sheese vegan cheese
After setting up a dining table at the front of the class with the food products on display when the children re-entered the classroom following lunch, admittedly the first reaction was for most to cover their noses. Indeed, the vegan cheese had an overpowering aroma of which, it is safe to say, many were immediately surprised by! The learners were then placed into groups of 6 and invited a group at a time to join me at the dining table to sample the foods. To make the lesson interactive, a question sheet was provided for each child to answer as they tasted the vegan foods. Perhaps the most compelling of all was the chance for the class to rate the products out of 10...
The engagement from the children was like no other lesson I had taught that school year. Each member of the class showed incredible enthusiasm and courage to try all of the foods. The learners enjoyed some, hated others and, best of all, were genuinely surprised at how nice most of the products were. In our following lesson, reflecting on the sampling, my final question to the class was - "Would you consider eating more vegan foods?" to which most replies were positive,
"Yes, I would. This is because the vegan foods were surprisingly good and I liked them"
As a result of the positivity flowing within the classroom and the excitement the vegan foods created, the children were then provided with the opportunity to create some vegan desserts of their own. Cookery is a real-life skill which many children will only get the chance to do inside school and fortunately, my school has excellent resources to make such ideas a reality. Working with my teaching assistant as the rest of the class wrote their reflections on the tasting session, they each created a batch of vegan chocolate chip cakes. It was fair to say from the empty wrappers that these too were a massive success!
Forest Green Rovers' most exciting future development is in its ambitious new stadium, Eco Park. It is understood that upon the completion of construction, the ground will become the world's greenest stadium. The club's website boasts the ground's impressive sustainability through its promotion of biodiversity, renewable energy and by being made almost entirely out of wood. Even the club's current ground, The New Lawn will make way for 'high quality, low carbon housing'. These facts and more provided the foundation for my class' study of the stadium. Its wooden construction and green ethos really captured the imaginations of the children who were quick to ask whether or not they too could design an eco-friendly stadium.
After the children got themselves into small groups of 4, they set about creating inspiring designs which utilised both the schools and their own household recycling. Once the design stage was complete and the class brought in bags and bags of recycled plastic, metal and cardboard - we could begin to manufacture. The hands-on approach to the learning and the opportunity to be creative saw many learners, who may find more academic learning difficult, excel in their groups. Provided each child with a role, be it: designer; engineer, collector, builder - also made sure that no member was left out.
The final creations were excellent and truly something in which the class could be proud of. We put the stadiums on display and gave each other feedback, discussing what we liked and what we could improve in the future.
Finally, we took a closer look at FGR's unique kit. Its distinctive green and black zebra stripes were indeed eye-catching but it was in the kit's material that really got the attention of the class. Incredibly, the home and away jerseys are made from coffee grounds and bamboo respectively, a notion which stunned the children. To start the lesson, I had placed at the front of the classroom, some sticks of bamboo and a bag of coffee and asked the children why...it is fair to say that none thought the answer lay in the Forest Green Rovers' kit.
Furthermore, when looking closer at the design of the jerseys, the distinctive sponsorship also appealed to the children who noticed that it was not only Ecotricity that sponsored the club. In a previous year group, my class had studied the human impact on the oceans and so the instantly recognisable Sea Shepherd logo was greeted with enthusiasm. With all this in mind, the next stage was for the children to design their own kits and justify the colours, materials used and environmental impact.
The class were given a design brief - the designs for the kits had to be: made from sustainable material; incorporate Welsh themes; and have an environmentally friendly sponsor. After first drawing their designs on paper, the class would use an online kit creator to really visualise their creations. Many of these were incredibly intricate and it would be amazing one day to manufacture them for real.
Football provides an incredibly powerful, authentic and engaging context for children to learn from. Although many teachers and leadership may turn their nose up at the sport, perhaps understandably given the theatrics and gamesmanship many see on their TVs, the modern game is adapting both on and off the pitch and reflecting the changing world in which it is played. Forest Green Rovers are at the forefront of a sustainable, greener future for the beautiful game and it is encouraging to see other, larger clubs following suit. From the hook of a small lower league club from Gloucestershire, my class were better able to understand the global challenges we face and begin to comprehend far more than just the scorelines. I truly believe football can play a key role in any future curriculum and its potential for learning, both physically and academically, is waiting to be unleashed.
Written by Ben Jones - You can follow me on Twitter @Benny_J and @TFHBs
If you would like to know more or take a closer look at my lesson plans - send us a DM on Twitter or an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
©The Football History Boys, 2022