Playing the game: champions of field and class

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The Independent Online
What makes a boy fulfil his potential - work hard at school and achieve success? Following the Government announcement regarding plans to tackle boys' underachievement, Jack O'Sullivan went into Nottinghamshire's Garibaldi Comprehensive to put this question to boys who are bucking the trend by doing well at school. He was somewhat surprised by the first answer he received...

"I think it's the football," said Scott Tunnicliffe, 12, a Manchester United fan, who, like a would-be Paul Scholes, plays centre midfield in the school team. He has carried off the Man of the Match trophy on several occasions. "Football?" I said, bemused. "But isn't that the cause of all this laddish failure?"

Scott persevered. "Lads like to play football. We all play for the football team, so no-one makes fun of you if you're working hard in class as well."

Anna Gregory, who runs the school's new mentoring scheme for boys, agrees with Scott. "The ones who are doing well are very sporty, good all-rounders," she says. "They establish their street credibility by being good at sport. So it's all right for them to be academic as well. Sport is not the enemy of academic achievement."

Certainly not, agrees Darren Norwood, 14, and one of the brighter boys in his year. "I think sport takes your mind off work for a bit and then you get back down to it. It's more of a hobby and the school encourages you to play."

The trouble is that not everyone can be good at sport, although Garibaldi has an enviable reputation. Set in the Nottinghamshire coalfields, surrounded by abandoned pits, it has always taken physical development seriously. "You gain stature as a lad in this area by proving your sporting prowess," says Bob Salisbury, Garibaldi's highly-regarded headteacher. "We still have six teams in the last stages of the county finals."

But Mr Salisbury also thinks it is important to challenge what education minister, Stephen Byers, labelled "laddish" culture. "I have a go at it at assembly," he says. "I try to explain it is important to be a student and not see that as swottish or creepy. Once you open up the issue, others rally around it."

The boys who are succeeding at Garibaldi all seem to have a good sense of personal self-esteem. They are not simply the middle-class ones: the school's intake is only four per cent professional in one of the country's more deprived areas. These are boys who, typically, have not a single relative who went to university, yet each is aiming for, and expected to achieve, third level education.

They are overturning a culture, which, in the recent past, did not much value education. "When the pits were open, there was no link between what they were expected to learn at school and what they did down the mines when they left," explained Bob Salisbury. "It didn't matter too much if you didn't do well at school, because with a basic training you could earn well enough down the pits when they were thriving."

Money, from getting a better job, also preoccupies these boys. Bob Salisbury recalls the long process required to persuade one miner to let his son - the most gifted mathematician he had ever encountered - to go to university. "In the end, I had to ask his wife how much he earned and explain how much more their son would make when he qualified." That clinched the argument.

Among the boys I spoke to, support from interested parents seems to be vitally important. "My mum and dad motivate me a lot," said Gareth Morgan, 18, in the Upper Sixth, preparing for A levels in graphic communications, business studies, art and general studies - and then a career in graphic design. His family moved to Nottinghamshire from the south Wales coalfields to work in the pits.

"Sometimes, I'm up in my room drawing for the whole day. They'll come up every half hour for a wander to see how I'm doing, ask whether I want anything, whether I'm OK. They tell me this is good, that's crap. I get a lot from that. It keeps me going. I know that, without fail, my mum will ask me how the day went. It's really great to have good parents.

"Mainly, I want to get a good job and good pay. My dad got bored as a miner. He didn't like it at all. He's retired now and has M.E. His dad died when he was 15 and he had to leave school early to make money for the family. So he wants me to get a good education. I like doing well because when I do well it makes him feel good. I want to do something I won't get bored with and will enjoy for a long time."

Not all the boys I spoke to had a father who could play this important role. But they often had older siblings who spur them on.

Darren Norwood's father died suddenly a few years ago, but, says his headteacher Bob Salisbury, the tragedy pushed Darren's older brother, Andrew, to make a success of himself. These days, Andrew Norwood, keeping goal at Notts County, looks good enough to become a Premiership keeper, and is an inspiration to younger Darren.

"If you don't do well," says Darren, "you don't get a good job. I work hard, I just get on with it. When people call me a swot, it doesn't bother me, because I'll get more qualifications and I'll get the job in the end. If you are strong enough to ignore what people say, you'll be OK. I want to do something in sport like physiotherapy, something like that."

Garibaldi, like many schools, is trying to build on what these boys are telling them to improve their success rate. "Boys still score on average a grade worse than the girls," says Bob Salisbury. "So if the girl gets a B in history, the boy will get a C, when you thought they had similar sorts of characters and ability."

Newly arrived boys are mentored by 16-year-olds, who are, in turn, led through the GCSE process and into A level courses by sixth form boys acting as mentors. The boys are matched up according to the football teams they support and meet for 40 minutes once a week, without formal supervision.

"For those in year seven, it is wonderful," says Anna Gregory. "Mentoring alleviates their fear of the older boys, fear of being bullied. We hope that these younger boys can build on the success of the older ones. They have their guardian angels and they know they will be all right."

If you are doing well, you can still be one of the lads

Luke Marshall, 11, has just begun his second term at Garibaldi Comprehensive, where he is among the top performing pupils. "Four years ago, my dad lost his job at the mine, where he had been leader of the safety unit. He was unemployed for 10 months. Until then, everyone in my family went to work at the pit. But, when that happened, it made me want to work really hard and get a good job. My dad told me that I needed to be in a much better position than he had been in. He has just finished three years at university, studying politics and public administration. It was good having him studying too because sometimes I did my homework with him and he knows what position I'm in. Sometimes it's difficult if your parents don't know what you are doing.

Now he's doing really well - he is manager of an insurance company, he has just finished as chairman of the school governors and he is chair of economic development on Mansfield District Council. My mum's a mobile hairdresser.

Some lads pull you down and call you a swot when you work hard. That's what happened at my old school. I told my dad about it and he said it's a sign that you're doing well. The good thing is that even if you are doing well, you're still one of the lads, because we all play football together.

On Saturdays at football, we're all just friends together - five in our class play in the same team and this is one of the top schools in the county at football.

If you study hard and go to university, you will still have to work hard, but it will come naturally. The ones who don't study hard will be left behind. They won't have the number skills or the science. Everyone realises that this is a big time for us."

Whoever works the hardest will get the jobs

Stephen Jackson, 14, is the son of a retired miner. His mother is a classroom assistant. Stephen expects to sit 10 GCSEs at Garibaldi Comprehensive and hopes to become a computer programmer.

"I saw the news that girls are doing better than boys. I didn't like it. I know I do well at school. I think boys and girls are equal. Some girls may be better than some boys, but some boys are better than some girls. I believe that whoever works the hardest will get the jobs - I don't think that employers are looking specifically for boys or girls.

Mining has never interested me much. I've always wanted to do bigger things. My dad was a miner for 30 years. He's 53 now, but he retired two or three years ago when they first shut the pit. He's like a househusband now, washing, cooking and cleaning.

Boys these days go for modern jobs - stuff they have seen on television like brain surgeons and things like that. My brother went to university for nine years in Brighton and he's a computer programmer and gets loads of money. So I want to get a job like him. I've got a computer at home and that helps me get used to working with it.

In the first year, you got called a swot if you worked hard, but that has faded out now. My friends all work hard. Some boys just get themselves into trouble. They believe they are not very bright and don't work as well as they could.

But no one has ever said that I'm bad at a subject. I like foreign languages - I'm doing French and Spanish. I'm doing Maths GCSE a year early, so I might take up Italian as well.

Dad makes sure I get my priorities right. He sees that I do my school work before I go on the computer and play football - I play for Mansfield Colliery. Usually, I'd prefer to play football first but I know that I'll thank him in the end.