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Using football to promote literacy: working with clubs and players

Added 25 Jul 2017 | Updated 30 Jul 20

Eric Dier

We are often asked for advice on how to get footballers to visit schools. Since we are unable to help organise these visits, or provide detailed responses on each occasion, we have put together the following advice based on our experiences of working with professional football clubs to promote reading and literacy. You can also use our sport-themed resources and programmes.

How do I get a player to visit my school?

Having a player talk to you about why they love reading will be incredibly inspiring and motivating for a football-loving reluctant reader. Players do visit schools, but there are some key things to bear in mind to increase your chances of success.

Write to your local club. If you live in Bristol, there is no point in writing to Arsène Wenger to see if he will release Theo Walcott for the day.

Contact the appropriate person at the club. This can be difficult as the position responsible for player appearances is likely to vary from club to club. It is best to ring the switchboard and ask to be put through to someone responsible for community work (check for a list of clubs and their contact details on the Premier League Primary Stars website. Each Premier League club has a Head of Community, so they, or someone from their team, are the best people to speak to. Other clubs may have a Study Support centre manager or education officer. Player liaison officers, where they exist, or the press / marketing department can also be useful names to ask for. 

All football players do some form of community work; it is part of the services that clubs offer to their local area. 

Ask for a player that is a reader, rather than just the most famous person at the club. That said, sometimes they can be one and the same. 

Don't listen to people who tell you that footballers don't read; there is always at least one keen reader in every first team.  

Timing is important, so look at clubs' fixture lists (try the club website or the BBC Sport website). Don't ask the player to come on the day when they have a mid-week game. Also consider that they will rarely be available on a morning but they should be able to get to you for about 2pm if you are local to the training ground. Remember that the training ground in most clubs' cases is a distance from the football ground, both of which may be a fair way from the player's home. Thursday is often a good day, but in general it is best to go with whatever you are offered. 

Injured (or banned!) players are more likely to be available. 

Some managers can be reluctant to release their players for these kinds of duties. They are after all first and foremost footballers. However, there is plenty of inspiration that the club could still provide: ask about stadium tours (most clubs charge for these), or if your class can visit a Study Support Centre or club museum. 

All Premier League and Championship clubs have football academies, or centres of excellence; you could ask if any of the students who attend these would be willing to visit the school. Although young, these players can be the future of the club, and are often close in age to the young people that you are hoping to inspire. They are immediately revered as this is who you want to be if you want to become a professional footballer. Academy students (who used to be called apprentices) still attend college, studying to at least A level qualifications. 

Consider other alternatives. Community coaches often make excellent role models. They are used to working with children, and use reading and writing as part of their everyday work. They are badged by the club and, like the academy students, will be revered by the young people just by virtue of their being associated with football. 

There are lots of careers at football clubs. Why not ask the physio or club doctor to come and talk to your group? 

Be realistic about what you ask your visitors to do. A 16-year-old academy player is very unlikely to want to be put in front of a whole-school assembly, but may be happy to take part in a small-group question and answer session. Ask the club to ask the players what they are happy to do; you might like to send across some prepared questions that your group is likely to ask. 

Remember that just because your player may be bold on the pitch, they may be shy in a classroom. Don't ask them to do something that might put them off coming. 

If you want to invite the local press make sure that you have agreed this with the club first. If they do come, brief them carefully: don't let them take over the session and question the player about any latest rumours about them or the club – this session is for your young people. 

Give them a public thank you. A gift (such as a book) will be very well received. 

There are alternatives to visits. You may be able to set-up a live 'chat' via Skype, FaceTime or other platforms, or perhaps ask them to record a video message. 

If you do secure an agreement from a player or their club for a visit, do not tell your pupils until they have arrived. Unforeseen circumstances occur all the time in football, so don't build up your group as the player may have a genuine reason to pull out at the very last minute. This can be due to changes in training schedules or fixtures and may not be the player's fault. 

If you have other tips about making player visits successful please let us know.

I've got the player, what now?

If you’re thinking of asking a player to attend your school, or you have already contacted the club and arranged for a player to visit, it is worthwhile considering these tips which should help to make your event a success:

Plan it out: The best player visits have as much to do with the member of staff that organises them as the player who turns up. Just because the player is comfortable in front of 35,000 people on a Saturday at 3pm does not mean that he’ll be comfortable in front of 30 kids on a Tuesday afternoon. The player may turn up having done no preparation himself, but this doesn’t mean you won’t have a great event. It’s down to you as the organiser to ensure that you have prepared what will happen and having activities ready is the key to a good visit. There is a wide range of activities that you could undertake and the ideas below should give you some inspiration. As an absolute minimum, ask the children to prepare some questions to ask the player.

  • Make contact: Agree practicalities. These include how long the visit will last, what you have planned for the visit and what you would like the player to do, for example will they be willing to read an extract from their favourite book? Have they won any medals or trophies that they would be able to bring along with them? Are they able to bring any memorabilia like old boots, club pens or a signed shirt to give to the school?
  • Prepare for the worst: The player may well be late, and in a worse case scenario might not turn up. Schedules can change so it’s always best to have a backup plan for what to do with the children if things do fall through. CONFIRM THE EVENT ON THE WEEK, AND ON THE DAY, OF THE EVENT.
  • Structure the visit: Player visits often work best when you start with a large group, (e.g. a whole-school assembly or class), and then follow this with a smaller group. The smaller group is often better if you’re involving press or photos. Save 10–15 minutes at the end of the session for autographs or for children to have their picture taken with the player. If possible, talk to the player about this first and how it will work.
  • Have a reason: Asking the player to visit for something specific gives the event an immediate focus. Ask the player to present certificates or to visit on World Book Day. It is also easier to involve the press if you have asked the player to attend for a specific reason or to present something.
  • It doesn’t matter if the player doesn’t have English as their first language: If the player is not from the UK take the opportunity to look at the country that the player is from with the pupils and base some class work around this prior to the visit so that the pupils can ask the player questions about what life is like in their home country. Why not arrange for the pupils to greet the player in his first language?
  • Get the dads in: Having a player to visit is an ideal opportunity to engage with families and, in particular, dads. Send a letter home to let parents know that you are planning a football-based reading event and parents are welcome. If you are starting a ‘Dads and Lads’ book group, why not invite a football player to launch it or to come to the end-of-year session as a treat for those who have taken part.
  • Do the research: Run some class work and activities to find out as much as you can about the player.
  • Don’t be too specific: If the player says that they have a favourite book, encourage questions about why they chose that book, but don’t expect them to have read it recently and remember it well. This is especially the case if the book is one that the pupils have read recently and know very well.
  • Take the media angle: If your local club can’t send a player to your school, or if you want to add an extra dimension to the event, why not try to get a journalist or reporter to visit? Most professional clubs will be followed by a reporter whose job it is to write about the team. To extend this theme and involve budding journalists as well as budding footballers, have pupils interviewing the player, or interviewing each other. Get pupils to write match reports or put together an article for the school newsletter about the visit. Players often have some media training which they will be willing to talk about. Further, if you can get hold of any meaningful statistics about the player you could base some kind of maths quiz around this, e.g. what is the player’s goal to game ratio?
  • Say thank you: At the end of the visit always remember to thank the player for their time. If you can get all the kids to thank the player for coming to visit the school, even better. A small gift (such as a book) will be very well received.

Good luck!

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