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Karen Thomson


  • Experienced Primary Teacher and Leader
  • Specialises in English, Maths, Science and PSHE
Subject,Key Stage,Curriculum

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Football – Winning and Learning

Well, it did come home I think! In so many ways. Jules Rimet may not have been gleaming in England, but the hearts and minds of the British public were united in the spirit of hope and pride and Gareth Southgate taught us all something about respect, honesty and integrity in management. Such is the power of football.

The start of the World Cup 2018 was only weeks after I retired from running boys’ primary school football; ten years which gave me some of the most poignant and memorable times of my teaching career, made all the more surprising because of my lack of PE background, my gender, my initial unfamiliarity with the rules and my age. I started running football club when I was 48. No-one else wanted to – or had capacity. Although as Deputy, I didn’t have much capacity either, I said I would give it a go. Ten years on, I don’t remember the muddy pitches in heavy rain, the risk assessments, the complexities of last minute transport arrangements. I do remember the passion, the energy, the winning, the losing; the pure unbridled joy of it all. I remember the smell of grass in the Autumn at the beginning of the season, new pumped-up footballs and I remember one particular match, played in un-forecasted snow in brand new kits. And we won! Could anything be sweeter? And I remember the face of the boy with SEN who found learning so very difficult as he scored a goal. A moment of complete happiness! It was an easy goal; a little tap-in against a distracted keeper, but to him it was the winning goal in the FA Cup final! And my memories are their memories. The experiences which shaped them into the men they are becoming. Ask any of them and they will regale you with a tale of every goal and the intricacies of passes and tackles which led up to them. They will tell those tales until they are old men.

Despite my unexpected love of the game, I have always told people that I ran football club to teach boys so much more. My approach, grounded in PSHE, was focused on building character.

The head teacher at my last school used to sigh when, whilst discussing children and their learning, I would refer to football. ‘Not football again!’ she would say.  ‘But this isn’t about football, it’s about children,’ I used to reply. Because through football, I knew those boys. I knew their characters, their responses to stress and their reactions to both success and disappointment. Through football, I helped them develop finer values and the self-belief and self-confidence which would support them in their futures. As the years went by I think she understood and began to agree with me that:

  • Through football, children can learn about respect: respect for rules and decisions, respect for the team and respect for the opposition. Children learn to shake hands and move on. They understand that rules are important and that they are in place to ensure fairness and equity. They learn about integrity and discipline.
  • Through football, children can learn about contribution. They learn that there is ‘no I in TEAM!’ They learn that we need to play our part and that everyone’s contribution is valuable. They learn about responsibility; about attending training even when you’ve got a cold and being responsible for your boots!
  • Through football, children can learn about aspiration and that success comes through hard work, practice and mistakes. They can learn about perseverance and resilience and develop Growth Mindsets. They can learn to win and lose with dignity.
  • Through football, children can learn about Inclusion. Football is one of the great levellers – gender, background, faith and culture don’t matter in a football match! Although football is separated into boys’ and girls’ at Year 5 and 6, I took every opportunity to organise joint tournaments and matches, and always enjoyed the boys’ surprise and subsequent renewed respect when they realised that girls can be skilful and can tackle hard!
  • Through football, children can learn to be creative. I am in awe of the 10-year-old in a match with people watching, who, considers his options and makes a choice. All in a split second! He needs to act swiftly and assuredly. Through football children can learn to make independent decisions and understand about cause and effect.
  • Through football, children learn self-confidence and experience joy! They build friendships which they take throughout their lives. They create precious memories.

Skills learned through football are transferable. I felt very moved recently when a boy I taught ten years ago told me how the skills gained through football have helped him in his own business as an electrician. He told me that the values learned through football guide his decisions!

Dads came to training and matches. Dads who didn’t come to Parents Evenings; dads who rarely set foot inside the school itself. Many is the time I’ve talked with a dad about their son’s challenging behaviour (ironically, whilst often watching impeccable behaviour during football sessions!) We engaged in two-way conversations about learning, support from home and home routines which led to impact. They respected me because I ran the football.

I feel privileged to have held the hearts of so many little boys as their manager. Their cries of, ‘When’s our next game Miss?’ and ‘Is it still on?’ as rain lashed against the window and puddles collected on the pitch, still resonate. Those teachers who didn’t have the capacity to take on football missed so much! Relationships I formed through football were deep and reciprocal. Grounded in respect and understanding, they spilled into learning and into every aspect of the school day.

In these days of weary teachers feeling that they have no more to give I sympathise. Teaching is tough! But I am increasingly seeing schools abandoning football clubs or franchising them out to sports organisations. I think they are missing a trick! In order to learn, children need to feel good about themselves. At my very last Leavers’ Morning a parent came up to me with tears in his eyes. He gripped my hand. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Thank you for the football which gave him so much confidence. That confidence spread into his learning and his Greater Depth results are all because of football.’

Gareth Southgate understood that and maybe that’s why his young team went so far in the competition. And maybe his integrity was the reason why we felt that it did indeed come home.

As the great Arsene Wenger said, "To achieve great things you have first to believe it".


"The moral values I’ve learnt in my life I’ve learnt through football."

I rest my case!