Back in 2006, when IHM Football Academy was founded, private football academies were a rare thing. Nowadays, they are starting up, and closing down, at quite a pace. Increased competition is a good thing for the consumer, it drives innovation and pushes up quality as organisations try harder to stand out in a crowded market place. However, as with schools, universities and colleges, there is a broad range of football academies in the UK right now. Unlike schools, these organisations are largely unregulated and so caution is needed.
The decision that you make regarding your child’s education is possibly the most important one that you will ever take. This is much more than an investment, the choice of football academy that you make will be a key factor in your son’s or daughter’s future well-being. Ultimately, also influencing how they will grow and develop in later life. Whilst there is already adequate help out there for parents starting to navigate the vast choice of UK independent schools available, study travel agents, accrediting bodies, results’ tables and inspection reports for example, there is very little to guide them in their choice of football academy. When you consider that some football academies are not connected to recognised accredited schools, this task becomes even more important.
This article aims to identify some key factors that will allow parents to evaluate private football academies in the UK. And importantly enable them to do this before they decide to enrol their child there for an academic year or more.
Culture & values
Written policies are great, you can always ask to see a written statement describing an academy’s ethos, but you need to actually go there to “feel” the culture of a place. Good academies will be proud of the positive atmosphere that they have created. They will be eager to show this off to anyone interested. Can you make a visit to the academy with your child? It would be certainly worth it. Your son or daughter ought to be invited to at least attend a training session. Maybe there is a summer “taster” or “Talent I.D.” camp that they can attend? I’m a parent. When I visited schools with my daughters I wanted to speak and meet the students there and the teachers. I also made contact with parents of children already enrolled to ask their opinion, too. A good football academy will facilitate this kind of interaction and communication. They ought to be able to put you in contact with ex students and their parents, preferably from the same country as you. A strong application procedure is indicative that the academy cares about who it admits and seeks to advise those who not fit its culture to look elsewhere. This ensures your child will be studying and training with likeminded peers.
Is the academy affiliated to a respected football organisation? In England, serious football academies will seek affiliation with the FA, the Football Association. Some academies are owned and managed by schools and so the school may be accredited by an accrediting body like Accreditation UK (English language schools) or ISI (The Independent Schools Inspectorate). This means that the school will have met rigorous quality standards, will have a published inspection report and will be subject to regular full school inspections. Accredited schools will also offer parents access to a complaints procedure, beyond that offered by the school.
Welfare & Accommodation
Knowing that a school has a rigorous welfare & accommodation policy, managed by a trained and experienced member of staff, is possibly the most reassuring part of your research. You need to understand how your child’s safety and welfare outside of class and football training is managed. Again, accredited schools will publish policies, but you need to identify who is the manager responsible for compliance with national standards and accreditation requirements. Does the academy conform to minimum standards, like those for schools eg. national legislation, Accreditation UK or ISI? But, as we have already said above, you need to make a visit to “feel the culture”. It is obvious when you are in an academy which is dedicated to safeguarding the health, safety and welfare of their students. It shines through everywhere you go and with whoever you speak to.
Mentoring & Tutorials
Football academies find themselves managing the dreams and ambitions of young people. This requires them to act with sensitivity and caution. It is therefore essential that young players are properly mentored. There is a responsibility to have honest and open dialogue with a young player so that he or she knows exactly where their potential lies. Similarly, young players must keep
level head when trial offers from professional clubs come in. It is too easy for them to lose motivation for their academic studies, but then be rejected by a youth academy without having completed their high school education. Also, parents must be kept in the loop regarding academic and football performance. So, it is worth enquiring if an academy has a regular reporting & tutorial system in place.
School teachers, and all the support staff who children will be in close contact with daily, are thoroughly vetted and entered onto a central register. This is in line with UK legislation and accepted industry safeguarding best practice. So, isn’t it just as important that the same standards also apply to any football coaching staff? There are also nationally recognised football coaching qualifications that demonstrate a coach is well-equipped for the role of working with young people and delivering meaningful coaching sessions. These start with the basic FA Level 1 award through to UEFA Pro License. Just as being a great teacher doesn’t qualify anyone to be a great school Principal, similarly it is not enough for a coach to have had a great professional playing career.
We can consult league tables when researching accredited schools. We can see their published results and so see how different school they stack up against each other with regard to exam results etc. We can read published school inspection reports. However, what data is available to allow parents to do the same when it comes to football academies?
Football Coaching & Opportunities
It is essential that you understand who exactly delivers the football coaching. Is the coaching in-house or is it contracted out? Big football brand names sell well, but beware the “Gorilla With Lipstick” that promises lots but fails to deliver. A clear understanding of how an academy seeks to place young players in front of the right people is key to evaluating this key aspect of any football academy. It is also worth enquiring about the network of scouts that the academy staff have available to them. What levels of club does this cover? An academy should be able to demonstrate that they can place a player at any level of the league tier, including grass roots FA affiliated non-league clubs, too. This ensures that the academy is not simply catering for elite players, but has a more inclusive approach. Young players grow and mature at different rates, it is important that they are not placed in an environment in which they do not feel immediately comfortable. If they are out of their depth, they will become demotivated and lose confidence and self-belief. Similarly, if they are playing below their full potential they will become frustrated and could also lose their motivation. Parents must also be wary of academies who use professional football trial companies, who charge (often considerable) fees for young players to attend. Scouts are paid to attend and can be further rewarded financially for the number of players they refer for club trials. There are ethical scouting organisations out there with recognised bodies like IPSO (www.ipsofootball.com). However, a serious scout does not need to be paid in order to come and watch a genuinely talented player. Finally, nothing compares to playing regular league football as the best way to be spotted by a scout. Scouts attend games, sometimes without a specific player in mind, but then will also travel to watch a game having been recommended a particular player by a trusted source.
Student players from outside of the UK / EU will need to apply for and be granted a visa in order to be allowed to study and train in the UK. Schools who are accredited by bodies such as ISI or Accreditation UK can issue a Letter of Acceptance to a student who they have decided they would like to enrol. The Letter of Acceptance is an essential UK visa support document to allow a student to be granted a Short Term study visa. Without this a student player may only apply for a General visit visa, which does not permit study. Applying for a UK visa is a quite complicated and expensive process, you need to have the confidence that the institution you are dealing with is aware of what is involved. Similarly, student players wishing to play at an amateur level need to get International Clearance in order to be allowed to do so. Finally, living far from home and in the UK for the first time can be a big change for most young people. A parent needs to feel confident that an academy is experienced in providing for the particular needs of international students.
Finally, it is very difficult for international (non-UK/EU) student players to be granted UK visa status that would entitle them to play professionally in the UK. It is misleading for a UK academy not to expressly advise such a player of this barrier of entry to UK professional football.