The recent spate of FA Cup shocks (Arsenal beating Sutton United, surely the magic of the cup at its most wonderful) led to a set of discussions about the merit or otherwise of footballing academies. Dragged away from their friends at the age of seven, some children go all the way to professional status in these cosseted, manicured bubbles. Many pundits argue that they are simply not prepared for the elbows, sweat and curses of the semi-professional world when they meet it in competitions such as the FA Cup.
I will leave that for the football experts to decide on. What is worrying about the academy system from an educational point of view is the mistake it makes of muddling elitism with standardisation.
I presume the objectives of academies are to develop elite sportsmen and women, though intensive coaching and physical development, to become the stars of the future (and investments for the club). However, do we run the risk of drilling them so comprehensively that they become clones of each other? I watch a Premier League match now and struggle to tell the difference between it and the FIFA X-Box game my boys so enjoy.
Players become fearful of making mistakes so they take safe options. Play becomes predictable. There is stagnation for those playing and those watching. Far from being elitist, the academies arguably churn out clones of very well-trained and drilled professionals. Thrown into an unfamiliar and stressful environment, they struggle to cope.
The use of the word ‘academies’ to describe the new model of school organisation is no coincidence. We must be careful not to push pupils through ‘elite’ schools that profess to develop ‘excellence’, when in fact all they might do is create pre-programmed exam-passers with little independence, character and flair.
Is that how we create leaders of the future I wonder?