Football, schools and a changing world

Every year our research students put on a conference and the theme for this year was education in a changing world. For me one of the most obvious but far reaching features of this changing world is our interconnectedness. What happens faraway can have a resonance in ways that were not envisaged in the past. This has many implications for education but, as often seems to happen these days, during the conference my thoughts ended up focused more on football than teaching and learning.

I grew up playing football, it seemed like every day, with friends in streets and parks and became attached to a local team. I got a glimpse of international footballers on when there was a World cup on television, but after these competitions were over they disappeared as far as I was concerned. Football was local – the players lived locally and modestly. Indeed, without too much difficulty my friend and I, as ten or eleven year olds, found out where one of our team’s leading strikers lived. We went round and offered to wash his car. He declined but chatted to us for a while about his international career and being a footballer. It is impossible to imagine that today. We were only vaguely aware of clubs being owned – but they were – usually by long established local families with business connections.

English football was historically slow to take part in European and World cup competitions but both clubs and the national team had some success [1]. To grow up supporting England was to carry a sense of superiority which lingered for long after its sell by date. It is only in more recent years that most of us not only rule out the possibility of England winning an international competition but we hardly expect the national side to progress beyond the first world.

Like many others I fell out of love with the game in the 1980’s. I still went when I could but at worst football became tribal and intolerant. This is touched on well by Nick Hornby [2] who describes taking a group of international students to Wembley to watch an England play Holland in 1988. He explains how he first had to negotiate a ‘determined and indiscriminate’ mounted police charge and he and his students were only reluctantly let into a stadium in which the entrance doors were ‘hanging by a thread’. Once inside they found themselves outnumbered by thuggish looking individuals who had taken their seats:

There wasn’t a steward in sight we stood and watched for half an hour during which Holland took a two one lead; the dreadlocked Gullit, the main reason why the game had sold out in the first place, provoked monkey noises every time he touched the ball. Just before half time we gave up and went home. (Hornby, 1992: 202)

For me (and for many) attachment to the game changed with 1990 World Cup in Italy. It was by some accounts one of the poorest events in terms of the football played but England for the first time in a while were great and were involved in most of the best, or at least most watchable, games in the tournament [3]. Even those not interested in football would talk about Lineker and Gascoine the morning after a game.

Since then English league football, as with other European leagues, quickly went on to become a global phenomenon. Owners, players and coaching staff came from around the world, top games were televised globally. Why did this happen? Well you don’t have to be an economist to see that those with money are chasing markets and doing so in a world with fewer borders. It becomes quite attractive to buy into the top clubs in Europe. It is not that they make a lot of trading profit but the value of the club goes up year on year as the money going into the game increases. And you don’t have to be technologist to realise that this global appeal is made possible by technology. But with what consequences?

If you want to draw up a balance sheet you will find, the game is played better, barriers of nation state seem looser, football seems to capture a cosy cosmopolitanism. The unthinking tribalism of the game has not gone away but is much reduced. We periodically take international footballers to our hearts; what matters is style, commitment and results [4].

Football’s global appeal works in good ways. Consider here the example of five-year-old Afghani Murtaza Ahmadi. His image ‘went viral’ on the Intenret when he was captured wearing a shirt made of a blue and white plastic bag with 10 coloured on on his back. Ten was the number of his hero Leionil Messi and the blue and white ‘shirt’ was the colour of the Argentinian team. According to reports Murtaza knew about Messi as the family could watch a solar panel powered televison in his village in Afghanistan. Murtaza became an Internet hit, he got to meet Messi. The end of the story is complicated but in short, and I am relying on journalist accounts, Murtaza and his family found it difficult to continue to live in Afghanistan. [5]

So what is the flip side of this globalization. First, we don’t ask enough questions about where the money is coming from and where it is going. It can leave as quickly as it came and it leaks in and out in appalling ways – even as became the case in Spain with the brilliant and saintly Messi [6]. In England we now has several clubs who have been taken over by owners who have led them close to ruin. Of course the common element here is naivety (the new owners do not get the fundamental point about football that you do not know if you are going to win), rather than international ownership, but there is no doubt that the connection with the local is being lost [7]. In the past you had supporters with a higher sense of identification with their club albeit with all the risks of insularity and conservatism that brought. Now you can have looser knit supporters and clubs with global appeal, but this has left many alienated from the clubs they have long supported [8].

I did manage to refocus my thoughts on the conference and away from football and this confirmed for me this almost universal challenge of balancing local and global attachment [9]. At the conference I was able to speak to several teachers strongly committed to their local communities but also trying to help their children think about global citizenship. As ever some of this work took your breath away in terms of imagination and commitment but I was left thinking that, once again, that we are asking a lot of our schools and our teachers.

[1] The UK is unique in world football in having recognised leagues in each of the countries of the union. For the record, Scottish clubs (Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen) all experienced success in European competitions too.

[2] Fever Pitch – this is Nick Hornby’s account of obsession with Arsenal, the book was first published in 1992.

[3] England were knocked out in the semi-final on penalties.

[4] To be fair this was always the case. Bert Trautmann a German prisoner of war who stayed on in England at the end of the war (1945) became a legend at Manchester City, as did the Argentinian Osie Ardiles at Spurs even with the interruption of war with Argentina (1982).

[5] Here is some background to Murtaza Ahmadi

and a follow up story at:

[6] More on Messi, who is on some accounts paid 400, 000 Euro a week, at:

[7] If you want to follow these things further here are blogs and articles on English clubs in trouble. This is Coventry (owned by hedge fund SISU):

and Blackburn owned by Indian entrepreneurs, the Venkys:

This is a more general piece including the goings on at Blackpool (owned by the Royston family) and Charlton (owned by Belgian entrepreneur Roland Duchâtelet:

[8] Here are some filmed interviews around identification with a club, covering supporters of Charlton and then supporters of Leyton Orient. The latter owned by the Italian Francesco Becchetti

[9] I tried to think about this more in the context of social media at







Pessimism and technology in school

Two recent news items posted to the BBC news web site have helped contribute to a pessimistic narrative about using technology in school.

The more recent of these is an evaluation of online charter schools which found that in 17 US states these schools were associated with ‘significantly weaker academic performance’ in maths and reading [1]. This item needs a bit of unpicking. The headline was ‘Online schools worse than traditional teachers’ and this led me to conclude schools offering online access were being compared against those without. It is only by reading further down the page, and by accessing the original report [2] one sees the study is really about being schooled at home. In these ‘charter schools’ students are provided with computers, software and learning materials, and have access to teachers using the expected range of communication technology, however they do not seem to be expected to attend a physical school as such. The approach was heralded as a new initiative in education but it is not clear that it has been properly thought through or adequately resourced. Indeed a lead author of the report is quoted as saying ‘Challenges in maintaining student engagement are inherent in online instruction, and they are exacerbated by high student-teacher ratios and minimal student-teacher contact time, which the data reveal are typical of online charter schools nationwide.’

My own knowledge of virtual schooling is confined to enhancement activity [3] and to providing students in school with access to teachers of shortage subjects. There have, in addition, been more closely targeted initiatives for learning at home, including some years ago a ‘Notschool’ initiative [4] which appeared to successfully support ‘hard to reach’ young people. Key to the reported success of Notschool was building a curriculum around the interests of the young people concerned and offering a high level of tutor support, both face to face and online. All this seems rather different to what has gone on in Charter Schools experiment.

A second, earlier report on the BBC site is of more general interest. This concerns a study from the OECD of PISA tests [5] under the headline: Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results [6]. The news items begins by saying that ‘investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance, says a global study from the OECD….[and that] frequent use of computers in schools is more likely to be associated with lower results.’

This is accurate but the reporting is slanted against ‘classroom technology’ – a stance backed up by the government’s (we are talking about England here) expert on pupil behaviour, who is quoted as saying teachers had been ‘dazzled’ by school computers. I don’t think the OECD study says anything about being dazzled but rather notes an understandable desire among those contributing to educational systems to use technology and to develop the teaching of new skills particularly in respect to understanding information handling and online risk. The OECD also found that students who use computers moderately at school tended to do better than those who used them rarely. I suppose the headline could have read ‘students who use computer a bit might do a bit better’.

Nonetheless, the OECD findings need to be taken seriously and questions asked why might technology be having so little effect? One partial answer is that perhaps we are measuring the wrong things. For example how can you compare what is learnt by, for example, creating a short multi media web site with what is learnt in presenting, say, a wall display by hand. Surely the use of technology is either worth doing for its own sake or it is not. Indeed why would you expect creating a web site to have any impact on traditional literacy or mathematics skills. To be fair the OECD did try to get round some of the difficulties of measuring like with like by setting up tests in ‘digital reading’ and ‘digital mathematics’ which might have been expected to favour the more digitally ‘literate’. These were interesting innovations but only go so far. A second answer to the disappointing impact of technology is that perhaps we are using the technology in the wrong way and here the report sees the quality of teacher student interaction around the technology as critical. The OECD argues we need to develop greater pedagogic understanding and reflection on technology use and few would argue with that.

Three things I think we can learn not just from the studies themselves but their reporting:
• the media used in teaching is only going to make a marginal difference, the wider context is so much more important.
• we should start by asking what kind of school system we want and working backwards rather than what the technology could do and working forwards.
• discussion of the impact of technology is usually much more nuanced than the press or policy advisors report it.

For what it is worth my view is that during times of economic upturn we look at our schools systems to bolster creativity and innovation, and technology both reflects and contributes to this outlook, in contrast in times of economic retrenchment we look for a more utilitarian curriculum and technology gets shunted aside.

[1] BBC News (2015) Online schools ‘worse than traditional teachers’, 4 November 2015
[2] CREDO at Stanford University (2015) Online charter school students falling behind their peers, 27 October 2015, press release with links to the reports at
[3] IGGY is an example of a global educational social network and is designed to help gifted and talented young people aged 13-18 ‘realise their full potential’, it is based at Warwick, where I work. Other networks are of course available particularly in specific subjects rather than the more general remit of IGGY.
[4] Duckworth, J. Ltd (2005) Evaluation 2005, at
[5] The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a three yearly international survey of 15-year-old students – see
[6] BBC News (2015) Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, 15 September 2015 at
[7] OECD (2015) Students, computers and learning: Making the connection
DOI:10.1787/9789264239555-enOECD /

in praise of praise

As I come to later, I was taken back a little by a Sutton Trust report on ‘what makes great teaching’ . [The Sutton Trust is linked here [] and the report itself is at] .

The report says many sensible things about support for learning and the critical importance of feedback. However tucked away was a small section on ‘ineffective practices’ including criticism of ‘lavish’ praise:

‘Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning.’ In fact this criticism of lavish praise was highlighted in the Sutton Trust’s press release and although the report was focused on ‘great teaching’ press reviews predictably accentuated the negative (‘what we were doing wrong’) including the harmful effects of too much praise. For example TES saw lavish praise as one of the ‘seven deadly sins of teaching’ (the report did not of course say anything about sin but never mind) and praise was the focus an ITV news item:

This is one more example where there was an opportunity for a national conversation about teaching that was sidetracked into a put down of practice – not much evidence of praise, lavish or otherwise, when it comes to the media and teaching. But there is a larger question here, are children (or for that matter adult learners) being praised too much? As it happens a while age I wrote a short reflection on my first experiences of teaching in secondary school, of my first school I noted:

‘Many teachers spent a lot of time mentoring youngsters both informally and formally. I saw impressive ‘active’ tutorial work and a constant appeal to students to behave responsibly and be reasonable when considering other people. Those struggling for language or other reasons were given whatever boost to self-esteem and self-confidence was possible. I remember one girl, let us call her Shahira, an eleven year old who had been working with a teaching assistant in one of my mathematics classes. The assistant sent her to me to show off some work she had done. I said ‘thanks that was good, well done’. Perhaps it was a little perfunctory and Shahira looked a little disappointed. The teaching assistant picked up on this and said: “well done Shahira, this is very good, are you pleased with it? Mr Hammond is very pleased with it, shall we now show the head of the department and see if he is pleased with it? Shahira duly went out to show her work to the head of department and was told, with more enthusiasm than I had mustered, how well she had done. The point is that the teaching assistant understood Shahira’s fragility as a learner in a way that I did not. She would not let Shahira go until she had been convinced about the value of her work and was willing to accept that she had the capacity to learn. I know this kind of reinforcement is maddening for conservative commentators who see explicit ranking of performance as core to the work of a school and ultimately in the best interests of students themselves. However the liberal ethos in my school was very inspiring for me and very different from my own schooling. I had never properly understood what it might be like to struggle academically or lack belief in my potential for learning and the teaching assistant had, whether intentionally or not, pointed this out to me. I thank her to this day for doing so.’

Was I wrong? Well I don’t think so. Self-esteem is core to learning – and many of us are fragile learners, we believe criticism and need to hear praise several times over to believe it. Of course if you only hear the praise and are not given the advice on how you can improve then yes praise is an ‘ineffective practice’. Most teachers follow a ‘two stars and a wish’ approach and this mix of praise and formative feedback is surely effective practice. However praise needs to be seen in context. Praise may indeed be lavish for one but finely tuned for others like Shahira. What the teaching assistant in my story was telling me was that I was not going to get anywhere without looking at each particular child and trying to see the world through her eyes and adapt accordingly.