Leonels and Fletchers

Real Madrid recently bought a young footballer called Leonel who’s being talked up as the ‘next Lionel Messi’ (non-sports fans: he was FIFA World Footballer of the Year in 2009 and 2010). Leonel Angel Coira is just seven years old though. The same story crops up every so often: last season Arsenal snapped up Fletcher Toll, their ‘new David Beckham’….for their under-7 side. These signings always come in for the same criticism, that six or seven is just too early to guess someone’s adult potential. An interesting question to ask is whether you can make a world-class footballer from a seven-year-old, rather than just find a potential star. Does training at Real Madrid aged seven really provide more opportunities to improve than playing in the street?

Think about reading instead. An Oxford-based charity called Reading Quest works with six- and seven-year old primary school students who make a bad start with reading English (perhaps they have learning difficulties, or don’t speak English at home). About one in five students leave school unable to read confidently, and this creates problems later down the line. So Reading Quest offers these students a six-week series of one-on-one sessions to make up the gap, and tries to involve parents more in their children’s education. I’ve seen their tutors at work, and was impressed by how each lesson was tailored to that particular student, how the tutor always checked that the children followed what was happening, and that the children were encouraged to find reading enjoyable, so that they’d have the confidence, interest and strategies to make improvements after the sessions were over.

I was reminded of Reading Quest at the weekend when I met up with a school-friend who’s now a primary school teacher, and co-ordinates literary teaching at his school. He gave me a lovely comparable example of teaching children to paint using watercolour. You can spend half an hour with one child, showing him or her how to hold a brush and mix paints and that person will never forget how to do it. Or you could teach a class of thirty for an hour, and at the end no-one has properly learnt that skill. Now I know why my recorder classes at school sounded so terrible.

I mentioned to him that the previous week I’d been speaking to some Teach First graduates at a party in Kilburn, who teach at secondary schools and all agreed that engrained inequalities in educational achievement were already in place before Year Seven (age twelve). Those students who didn’t have basic skills in Maths and English couldn’t catch everything in their language and science lessons, and just fall further and further behind those high-fliers who’ve enjoyed lots of individual attention and so are better at learning. Children whose parents read stories to them when they were five, and received individual attention from empathic adults at school and home are likely to do better later on. These Kilburn teachers felt strongly that debate about access to universities needs to look much further back than A-Level grades.

For Leonels and Fletchers who play a team sport where (I imagine) you just need to play lots of football and keep being told to improve, I doubt it makes that much difference whether you’re playing for Real Madrid youth teams or in the local park. Talent will shine through. But one reason it’s different for school children at that age is that it matters whether you build up basic skills, like reading, that allow you to become an independent learner, gain more skills later on and hold some kind of interest in what you’re doing. And personalized attention probably plays an important role in acquiring these skills.