‘One boy said he wanted to be a pilot... but you could see he thought it was a test’ – How Ipswich Town have improved education provision
PUBLISHED: 06:00 02 June 2020
Ipswich Town’s head of education Ralph Pruden got in touch following our recent interview with Chris Smith about his academy journey. He told STUART WATSON about how it’s now easier for the club’s scholars to combine academics with football.
“It’s not something we’re absolutely nailing, but we definitely feel we’re moving in the right direction.”
Ipswich Town’s head of education, Ralph Pruden, got in touch following our recent interview with former Blues player Chris Smith about his academy journey.
Smith, 22, spoke about how he was proactive in completing two A Levels during his time at the club – ‘something I had to do off my own back’ – and how that enabled him to move on seamlessly from the professional game following his release last summer. Those qualifications mean he is now able to combine playing a high standard of non-league football, for Conference North side King’s Lynn Town, with studying for a degree in mechanical engineering at Loughborough University.
‘Make sure you have a Plan B’ was his powerful message to club’s current crop of youngsters.
“I thought Chris came across very well,” says Pruden, the club’s former women’s team manager, who started his new role three years ago. “That’s very much how he is, a really good kid.
“He had just finished when I started my role. He was a bit of a trail blazer I suppose in seeking that additional education off his own back. It got me thinking that, for grounded and bright individuals like him, it was possible to do additional work while still aspiring to be an elite level footballer.
“We changed education partner from Otley College to St Joseph’s College two years ago and a major part of that was to put the boys in a more aspirational education environment.
“Going to a private school was quite a risk, but it’s been great. We’ve asked the boys for feedback and begrudgingly they’ve gone ‘yeah, it’s okay actually’. I think they appreciate it’s a bit of an opportunity and that, if they get the results, it will open some doors for them.
“The LFE (League Football Education), which is the education arm of the Football League, said to me ‘you’ve got to be careful with A Levels because boys start them and often fail them’. There was a certain level of concern there. They wanted to make sure we were only offering it to young players where it was appropriate.
“We said that the boys we had who wanted to do A Levels were certainly fully committed so, for the first time this year, they provided a small amount of funding. That money allows us to bring in one or two tutors to the club.
“Alex Henderson (who made his first team debut in the EFL Trophy earlier this season) is doing a history A Level, a couple are doing maths A Levels and another couple are doing business.
“So of the 26 scholars we have currently, five of them are doing additional education on top of the traditional sports B-Tec. That’s not a huge percentage, but it’s a significant number when you consider that two years ago it was zero.”
Pruden continued: “We as a club have decided this is the route we want to go down. It would be wrong for me to say that the boys can now do whatever they like academically, it still has to fit around the football, but we have looked at ways where we can make the education programme a little bit more bespoke for those that want it.
“The WSL (Women’s Super League) launched a girls academy two years ago and that’s duel career based. The FA grades it as highly on academic standards as it does on the football standards. The women’s game is different, obviously, in terms of salaries. We learned a lot from that though and in terms of how healthy it was for the girls to get that balance.
“People always talk about having a ‘Plan B’ but personally I don’t like that term. Working towards your education and football should go hand in hand.
“If you are hard working and conscientious in the class room then those are transferable skills. If you’re prepared to sack it off in the classroom and don’t want to show those good habits then the chances are that when the going gets tough on the football field we might see those same attributes. Do you see what I’m saying?
“That’s not always 100% accurate of course, but generally it’s a really good message. Work hard in both and it supports the other.
“We’ve found that the boys who have applied themselves to their academic work tend to be less worried about failure with their football. As a result that allows them to be more relaxed and, in turn, they tend to play better football. It’s a win-win.”
Asked if views are changing within the game about how important further education is for academy scholars, Pruden said: “I think people are seeing that a greater focus on education has led to boys actually becoming better footballers rather than detracting from their progress, the latter having probably been the view inside the game not so long ago.
“The young lad at Rochdale (Luke Matheson) is a great example of how attitudes have changed. He did a brilliant post-match interview after scoring against Man United in the FA Cup, talking about how he was doing an A Level and how important that was to him. Someone like him now gets held up as a role model to our young lads, whereas five years ago people in the game would probably have watched that and gone ‘what are you going on about, concentrate on your football’.”
Talking about a potential life outside of football is a difficult conversation for those just starting out in the game, but one that realistically needs to happen given the amount of young players who are discarded along the way.
“Statistically, roughly speaking, just one in 100 academy players go on to become professionals,” admits Pruden. “And the chances of having a five-plus year career in the pro game is even more limited.
“But rather than saying ‘look, you need this (education) because you might not make it’ – which, as you can probably appreciate, doesn’t usually get the best response – we say ‘this could actually help you beat those odds’.
“They’re not silly. They know how tough an industry it is. The way to sell it to them is to say ‘this will make you a better person, make you more rounded, give you a much-needed focus away from the pressure of football and, ultimately, give you a better chance of making it as a footballer’. You get a lot more buy in from that.
“When we meet with boys, their parents and their teachers we say ‘if you weren’t coming into football then what would you be doing instead?’ and then look at how much of that we can keep alongside the football programme. We also have to look at why they’d be doing it and making sure they’re not just doing it for the sake of it.
“One boy, I won’t say who, was a little bit guarded when we first asked him. Eventually he went ‘well, if I wasn’t going into football, I’d try to be a pilot’. That’s when we realised there was still this thing in young players where they were wondering; ‘Is this a test? Am I allowed to talk about not being a footballer?’ I think there was this fear that it would go against them if a coach heard about it.
“We’ve had to assure them that’s not the case and that, in fact, it actually gets looked upon favourably. We’re assuring them that them having other interests doesn’t mean we see them as not being fully committed to football.”
Pruden adds: “Also, I do think it’s really important to give their brains a break from football. When your hobby and your passion becomes your job then it is important to have an escape from that.
“Mental health of young men is something that football, and society as a whole, talks about a lot more. You see a lot of ex players talking about their struggles with transitioning out of the game.
“It doesn’t matter when that time comes, be it getting released at 23 and still needing to earn a living or retiring at 33 after a successful career and being financially set up for life, you have to be mentally ready for that moment. These guys have been defined as footballers for so long and all of a sudden it’s like ‘okay what am I going to do now?’
“If you’ve got another string to your bow then it makes that transition into normal life much easier. They’re not just ‘a footballer’.
“When I first started my role was ‘head of player education and welfare’, but we’ve now appointed a player care officer to take on the welfare side of the job. I think football has realised that pastoral care is more than just a part-time job. It’s not enough to just have the occasional chat about how they’re feeling, there needs to be constant support there.
“There’s a much, much greater emphasis on player well-being, mental health and an awareness of the high pressure they are under and how the uncertainty that surrounds the industry can leave them in a dark place without the right support.”
Pruden concludes: “Don’t get me wrong, boys are coming to us to become footballers. Some of them just aren’t academically inclined. During this lockdown period we’ve set them the task of doing 20 hours education a week. Some are doing it amazingly, some are chipping away and one or two are not doing it at all. Everyone is different. Almost all of them are now achieving better than predicted grades for their B-Tecs though, which is positive.
“The great thing is there is a lot more recognition across the game, and definitely at Ipswich Town, that education for young players is important.
“Chris Smith is held up as a great example to the young lads. He shows that you can still make it as a professional footballer and do all that additional work.
“It’s now that time of year where boys are being told they are going to be released. Three of ours are going off to America on scholarships, we’ve got others looking at university and one set to do a business apprenticeship. Those incredibly tough conversations about letting lads go are much healthier when they have those options in place.”