April 2012

It's hard to imagine a combination that would be better at seducing a youngster into working hard than a school set up by a Premier League football club and boasting stage and screen stars as patrons.

Now two are in the offing. One is on Merseyside, spearheaded by Everton in the Community, the charity arm of Everton football club. It recently announced Dame Judi Dench would be its patron. The other, in east London, is the brainchild of Karren Brady, the vice- chairwoman of West Ham.

Both projects have been encouraged by the education secretary Michael Gove, who is keen to replace struggling schools with academies and free schools to try to improve exam results.

Brady, Lord Sugar's right-hand woman on television's The Apprentice, hopes to announce the location of the West Ham academy school this summer. Last week she told The Sunday Times she would like to see teenage girls following her into the lucrative but male-dominated world of top-class football.

The first woman in Britain to run a football club when she took over at Birmingham City aged 23, Brady would like at least half the pupils at the West Ham academy to be girls.

"I would love to do an all-girls' school but I probably wouldn't be allowed," she says, "[but] I would like 50% of the pupils to be girls. When I arrived at West Ham there were no senior women at all. Now 50% of the management team are women, which I think is the least percentage that it should be.

"Someone opened a door for me; my job is to hold that door open to get as many women through it as possible."

If it goes ahead, the academy would teach all the skills needed to work in the world of football.

"We'd focus on the fact that we're a football club," says Brady, "but actually we'd like to offer all the things we think we're good at, both on and off the pitch. Football clubs hire staff with expertise in finance, marketing, retail, catering, sponsorship, commercial and ticket sales, as well as sports science, coaching and nutrition."

The aim is to give career options to children who might not be aiming at university. Brady, who was accepted onto the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi's graduate training scheme with four A-levels but no degree, explains: "It will be about kids that have a spirit and determination, so that they have a chance, because kids that are going to university, they already have that opportunity."

"I didn't have a degree, Sir Alan Sugar didn't have a degree; we weren't left behind. It would be nice if I could do something for others in our area."

On Merseyside, three generations of the Baker family live and breathe Everton. Kenny Baker has been a season ticket holder for 42 years. His father, Peter, has not missed a home game since 1961, and his son, Kenny junior, "has blue blood running through his veins".

The Bakers all live in the inner city area of Toxteth, Liverpool, and are excited by the news that their beloved Everton has been given the green light by Gove to launch a free school in September.

Kenny junior, 13, is the right age to enter the school, which will initially cater for 120 pupils aged 14-19.

Although it is being set up and run by a football club, the school will offer a full educational programme. Its purpose is not to provide footballers for Everton but, as with West Ham's, to provide opportunities for local children.

"I think it's a really, really positive move by Everton," says Kenny senior. "You have pupils who do struggle in education. These pupils in the past would often be thrown out of school and be getting up to no good on the streets. I think the Everton school can help give some of these kids the qualifications they need to get on. I hope it can be a great help to Kenny junior."

Both projects began in response to an invitation from Gove to all the Premier League clubs to consider getting involved in setting up a free school or academy. Everton is the first to have taken up the challenge; West Ham looks set to be the second. And Tottenham Hotspur has held talks about a similar venture.

However, footballing schools have not always had the greatest academic record. GCSE results at schools specialising in the sport have sometimes been well below the national average as pupils have concentrated on their on-field activities instead of schoolwork. Whitefield school in Cricklewood, north London, home to the first independent football academy, for instance, has achieved disappointing exam results. Just 49% of pupils gained five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths in 2011, compared with a 69% average in the school's borough, Barnet.

However, Denise Barrett-Baxendale, chief executive of Everton in the Community, is confident that the Everton school will avoid these pitfalls. "Our board consists of a range of specialists with many years of experience in the field," she says.

There is at least one Everton player who is eager to show how much football can achieve off the field: the club's Australian midfield star Tim Cahill, who would be happy to help coach the school football team if asked. "If we can use football to encourage kids to knuckle down and get a better education, that's terrific," he says.

But star-studded football clubs must be cautious about using their cachet to attract pupils, warned Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education.

"I support the idea," he says. "But the children who attend will need to be able to distinguish between the celebrity status of the club and the realities of education, which means working hard. Provided pupils don't confuse the two, the schools should be able to bring real benefits."

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