We have been totally overwhelmed by the response to our pupils’ letters to the FA. The whole thing came about as part of our enrichment writing week held 21-25th November. Each year we choose a topic to inspire our pupils to write for a purpose and this year’s theme was ‘Football and Gender Equality,’ an idea designed to introduce our pupils to work on becoming an ‘Educate and Celebrate’ best practice school. We regularly refer to equality in school and knew pupils would immediately recognise gender as one of the protected characteristics of the Equality Act.
We like to start our writing week with a shocking event and this year was no exception. Monday morning’s assembly was interrupted by our Business Manager handing me a letter in front of the children and making a big fuss over the contents. The letter had been totally fabricated by me, indicating that girls were no longer permitted to play football on County Council property.
To begin with, children were naturally suspicious, especially when they realised it was writing week, but we managed to persuade them that we had actually planned a week based on animal captivity in zoos. They actually asked us if they could write to the Council and produced some very effective persuasive writing. The activity worked well for our work on Rights Respecting Schools as the children immediately realised some of their rights were being withheld, and included this in their letters.
At the end of the day, we told the children that the letter was a mock-up, designed to inspire them to write. This was why when we produced the FA recommendations, the children immediately assumed this, too was a fake.
During my research for materials to use during writing week, I googled ‘girls and football’ and came across the document ‘Considerations for increasing participation in women and girls’ football (12+).’ It is a national FA document which comes up as a PDF to download. As soon as I read it I knew it would be perfect for our work on gender equality, as many of the suggestions included stereotypical assumptions that all girls like pink, gossiping and don’t really enjoy sport.
Although aimed at girls and women slightly older than our pupils, we considered it appropriate to use with the Year 5 and Year 6 pupils. It provided a great opportunity for comprehension work, where pupils were able to use their inference and deduction skills. For example, when they read, “Most of the time, girls only want to play with other girls. Players with more ability may be willing to play mixed football,” children quickly understood this to say boys are better than girls at football! Pupils responded to the FA document in a variety of ways of their own choosing. Many wrote letters to the FA, with some being formal letters of complaint but others making suggestions as to how to make the document more gender neutral and offering ideas about how to encourage more girls and boys into football. Because this writing had a real purpose, I told pupils I would send some of the letters to the FA. Pupils were disappointed that I did not send all the letters, but I felt a package of 80+ scripts would be a little over facing and may end up straight in the bin! So I chose three well written letters, included a covering letter from myself and posted them to the CEO of the FA, Mr Martin Glenn.
The news coverage came about because we had invited a local BBC journalist, Philippa Goymer, to talk to the children about journalistic writing. At the end of the week we held mixed gender football matches and the children were going to write reports about the games. During her visit, some of the pupils talked to Philippa about the FA document because they were so outraged by it. Last week, Philippa contacted us to ask if she could interview some of the pupils and myself about our reactions to the document for a Radio Newcastle broadcast. This was recorded on Friday and went out on Monday morning at 7am.
Incredibly, by 8am we already had voice mails left on the school phone from journalists wanting to come to school for a report. By 9am Tyne Tees television had contacted us, and for the rest of the day the phone never stopped. The pupils were eager to share their views and loved being recorded for the different shows which all were on TV on Monday night. Despite already having permission from parents for media photographs etc, we contacted every family whose child was to be on television for additional consent before the children were filmed.
Naively, I thought the visits would be quick and fairly unobtrusive. However, there was a major impact on the day including me being out of class for most of the day and children being moved out of their classrooms to free up areas to film. Some TV channels (I won’t say which ones!) were in school for nearly two hours. We had journalists queuing up to interview the children. Happily, they took everything in their stride and enjoyed all the attention.
Throughout the afternoon, new reports would appear online and by the end of the school day, pupils had seen their story online in every major newspaper. This created a fantastic buzz in school and we had the opportunity to discuss how the media had selected just the quotes they wanted to create a sensational story. Much of what I said in interview was disregarded and I was particularly disappointed that our male pupils had been left out of the reports – they had had just as much to say about the FA document as the girls.
The story spread incredibly quickly – by the afternoon we had reports from a relative in America that the story was on the international BBC news for example – and snowballed into a huge wash of reports. I counted at least 100 different websites/newspaper where the story had been published including the Nigeria Daily news and, incredibly, Wales Farming! The media storm continued into the evening when we received requests to appear on live breakfast TV. After consultation with the head teacher, we both agreed that we would prefer not to take on any more interviews and that we would decline any further opportunities to be interviewed about the letters (of which there were many!)
The only exception to this was when CBBC Newsround contacted us on Tuesday. We felt it was a great opportunity for the pupils to be on a news program specifically for children, and were able to set up a FaceTime interview which was recorded for that evening’s show.
On Tuesday afternoon I was contacted by Sue Campbell, Head of Women’s FA. Martin Glenn, the CEO of the FA, had asked her to respond to our pupils’ letters. I was able to pass on the good news that the FA have decided to review the document.
All in all, writing week had an amazing impact on our pupils. No one could have imagined the huge impact from the media about our letters. However, it was a great chance to tell the children how powerful writing can be if you do it well!
We never set out to take on the FA. All we want to do is educate our pupils to become responsible, understanding pupils who believe in equality, can voice their opinion and stand up for their rights.
The events of this week have certainly done that!
Deputy Head Teacher
Lumley Junior School.