John McEntee: Sport has its place but school should be about education

Picture Margaret McLaughlin

HAVE you ever read a school report and thought ‘I wonder what the teacher really thought of me'?

Well, last week my parents stumbled across a faded green document wallet buried deep in their attic.

Thinking it was a folder containing archaic invoices, it was placed in the pile nearest the door to be shredded – a task for the next child who visits their granny's in return for a bar of milk chocolate – evidence there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Kids are much more curious than their grandparents. My niece could have done as instructed. She could have set up her workstation and blindly funnelled the pages through the teeth of the shredder.

Instead, something on the documents caught her attention. Maybe it was the page layout or a school crest. Either way, what she saved was information which confounds everything I knew to be true about myself.

Ach, sure, I thought I was quiet and unassuming, that I rocked up for school, did what was asked of me and blended into the back of the class just like a poster on the wall.

The school reports from 1988 onward imply otherwise.

“Very forgetful of late- must wake up,” wrote my English teacher.

“Pity he wasn't as attentive as his brother,” wrote my French teacher.

The funny thing is that I loved French, despite knowing that a Cross man cannot speak in a French accent.

My geography teacher wrote: “A fair result but his class behaviour could improve.” Really? When I think back to some of the things the Newry lads got up to during those years I'd be surprised if some aren't serving time as guests of Her Majesty.

In December 1991, having spent three years in school and set for another two until my GCSE exams, my chemistry teacher wrote: “A very poor result. Gary must work on this subject.”

Gary? Who's Gary? This was at a time when school reports were hand-written – there was no copy and paste available.

Clearly I wasn't the teacher's pet. It was some years later, while I was on a year's sabbatical from university, that the penny finally dropped and I realised the importance of education. Fortunately it wasn't too late.

I guess I could have focussed more on my school years but the fact is that my misguided priority as a youth was to become a better footballer.

As I watch young kids develop into teenagers and progress through football age grade after age grade I wonder if they are making the same error of judgement I did.

I do not wish to detract from the values of participation in team sports, as readers would know I am a fervent advocate of all things exercise related. I do, however, believe that football for kids aged 11-18 years must be measured.

Crucially, the restrictions, or to put it another way, the parameters, must be provided by parents and teachers as guardians of the child's educational and physical development.

My father often says a little knowledge is easy carried. What he means is it is important that kids focus on achieving educational attainment, which means something different for each kid.

Once good results are obtained kids can then concentrate all their energies on whatever they want because they have something to fall back on.

A good education allows one not only to change jobs, but to change careers. It is fair to say that at 18 years of age young men and women are not certain of their chosen career path.

Some may start out as accountants only to convert into healthcare professionals. Others may train as physics teachers but change to become electrical consultants.

Strange as it may seem to an aspiring 14-year-old, but one's playing career is incredibly short, and when it is all over there is a life beyond football which is often unrelated to football itself.

Decisions kids make are not driven by the same logic as adults. They do not have the benefit of hindsight to know where they are going wrong. They need their parents to provide structure and organisation to their day.

Of course, one can attend after-school training or development squad gym sessions, but time should also be scheduled to complete homework and for exam preparation. Parents, not kids, should decide when it is reasonable to train six times a week with three different teams and when it is not.

Yes, achieving a good education was important 30 years ago, however its significance is even greater in today's world. Schools recognise this reality and the status of a footballer in many secondary schools is less elevated than it was.

This is a welcome change and those teachers who have adapted with the times are to be applauded.

The teacher who continues to push football over academia places the kid's long term future over any short-term footballing success.

I look back on school as the best days of my life. When asked if I would do it all again, the answer is yes – but I would do it differently.

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