Ireland
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A whole new ballgame: Meet the school using soccer to keep students onside

Team-teaching, flipped classrooms and project-based learning: Irish schools and teachers are continually trialling new ways to engage their students and maximise learning. Teachers at Larkin Community College are also trying something different – they are using football to keep their students off the sidelines when it comes to their education.

This new academic year marks the second year of a pilot programme run at the school know as the Football Development Programme or, as the locals call it, “the programme”. It is run as part of the Junior Cycle and starts in first year.

The focus of the programme is not about elitism but rather about inclusion and has commitment at its core.

“Our guiding principle behind it all was that hard work surpasses any talent,” says school principal Thomas Usher. “Our goal was never to solely identify the most talented footballers [but] rather create a community of students who share a common passion for sports.”

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The school has a long tradition of running development programmes, from arts to technology, but the football programme is in a league of its own. Many of the activities involved in the initiative happen outside of the formal school timetable.

Students, who self-select for the programme, must commit to coming into school early or staying behind after that final bell.

“It was very much about trying to show them that it wasn’t just a case of getting out of the classroom to do this,” says Usher. “They were expected to come in at 7.30am some mornings to do a meditation programme or stay behind on a Wednesday evening to do the healthy eating programme.”

The 23 students involved take part in meditation, strength and conditioning, healthy eating courses, fireside chats with guest speakers and, of course, football.

While the programme has roots in a previous football scholarship programme based in the school, the current model has expanded to include girls. Usher says that they have seen an increase in the number girls interested in playing football in recent years. “Of the current first years, probably a third of them are girls,” he says.

Every aspect of the programme is student-led. Guest speakers provide motivational talks to reinforce the importance of continuous self-development. “Everybody has a story to tell, and it makes it real for the students to listen to the [guests’] stories and the paths that they have taken all through their career,” says Usher.

Larkin Community College students enjoy an early morning kick about. Photograph: Jason Clarke

But this isn’t a passive activity for the students listening in the library. Their role here is to compose the questions and develop their public speaking skills as interviewers.

“The students are very much front and centre of everything that goes on within the programme,” says Usher.

Another feature of the programme is yoga. These classes took place over a six-week period and once again the students had to attend before school.

Lisa Doogan, PE and business teacher and coordinator of the football programme, says yoga is a common feature in the routine of many Premier League footballers but that the school chose to include it for reasons that went beyond the physical benefits.

“It’s really for their mental health and teaching them how to cope with everyday life,” says Doogan. The yoga course was delivered by teacher and GAA footballer Michael Darragh Macauley.

Chris Kane, a yoga teacher who runs yoga classes for transition year students in several schools in Dublin, says yoga is a way to reintroduce students to socialising without technological distractions.

“I would work with a lot of partner poses,” says Kane, “just doing a simple twist so that you’re doing the twist, either back-to-back or some part of the body is touching to reintegrate kids into socialising.”

Kane says the hardest pose to teach kids is “savasana” or corpse pose. “Just being able to be with your body, your own thoughts, and your own breath, and being body aware, you have to build some body awareness, rather than masking all these difficult feelings or emotions with distractions.”

While the staff at Larkin Community College are fundamental to the success of the programme, with many delivering additional classes early in the morning or during lunchtimes, the school also benefited from the expertise of some outside bodies.

Shelbourne Football Club provided football coaching to the participants. “When you talk about role models, who better to have than the people that are on your doorstep?” says Usher.

“We have been down to Tolka and met the ladies and the men’s teams down there and the coaches that we have, along with the coaches that are working in the school, are coaches that are working down in Shelbourne too.”

The greatest success for me is to see how kids have actually flourished

—   Thomas Usher

The programme received another excellent assist in the form of the chair of the football programme. Michael McAteer, who was drawn to the project on a personal level, was able to bring the professional skills of Grant Thornton into play and allowed the staff and coaches at the school focus on the footwork.

“My role as chair of the steering committee is to make sure that that we are sticking to the ethos of the programme and trying to achieve as many of the objectives that we set out at the very start in August 2021,” says McAteer, managing partner of Grant Thorton Ireland.

School staff were able to implement the programme while McAteer used his expertise to focus on the paperwork and measurements that highlighted the benefits of the programme. “It’s what we do in the day job, so it was great for the skills to be married up and provide real assistance,” he says.

For McAteer, it was the holistic nature of the programme that drew him in. “This programme was more about using sport as the tool to get them engaged more in school and that meant more than the physical side of playing football, but also mental wellness, yoga, proper eating, confidence building and pushing their own boundaries,” he says.

“When you boil it down, it’s trying to keep kids in education as long as possible. Finding the ways and means to keep them engaged.”

Early school leaving can have many negative outcomes for an individual. It is associated with higher risk of unemployment, social exclusion, poverty and poor health. While the rate of early school leaving at Deis schools in improving, there is still a significant gap compared to non-Deis schools.

Larkin Community College students enjoy an early morning kick about with Damien Duff. Photograph: Jason Clarke

A report published by the Department of Education on early school leaving shows that while 94 per cent of students stay on to the Leaving Certificate in non-Deis schools, this falls to 86 per cent in Deis schools.

McAteer says one of the greatest benefits of the football development programme is the growth in the students’ ambition and confidence. “That confidence boost comes from football, it comes from learning new skills.” he says.

Mind the gap: Is the Deis programme for schools fit for purpose? ]

The programme is now in its second year and is already evolving to incorporate new courses but for school principal Thomas Usher, the programme’s greatest achievement is seen in the here and now.

“The greatest success for me is to see how kids have actually flourished,” Usher says. “It’s not just about sports, to see how they’re bonding together and see how the different cultures come together, different genders have come together. And it’s visible every day.”