How Football Is Changing The Game For Low Income School Children

How Football Is Changing The Game For Low Income School Children

For all those who would doodle on benches, count the tiles on the ceiling and even catch a quick nap during lectures in school, uninteresting teaching styles are quite familiar. Canteen musings would often conclude that a lot more attention would be paid if the course was taught in a more engaging and creative way. Understanding this premise, Just For Kicks co-founder and ex-Teach For India fellow Neha Sahu took her class outside of the classroom to mix learning with something students find a whole lot more appealing--sports. Turns out her experiments with teaching led to something much larger.

Co-created by TFI ex-fellows Neha Sahu (Chief Operating Officer) and Vikas Plakkot (Chief Executive Officer), ‘Just For Kicks’ is an organised sports initiative for low income public and private schools alike, filling a crucial need gap. With football at the heart of this endeavour, it now spreads across Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad involving over 150 different teams, dressed sharply in colourful jersey kits.

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The kick off
“I did the TFI fellowship from 2010 to 2012 in a municipal school in Dadar,” Sahu starts, “We had a field in our school and I noticed the students spent a lot of time in their PT class, but there wasn’t much happening in terms of physical education.” After-school football sessions were an everyday occurrence for these children, which caught Sahu’s eye. “I was even amused with how they looked down upon cricket,” she laughs.
Being a major football fan herself, Sahu noticed that these young children were very good players. “They were between ages 7 and 10, and then could take on kids even four or five years older than them, “ she says. Her students were far behind in both academics and discipline, and were often aggressive and distracted, which led her to get a little creative. “I started conducting Math and English classes on the field, and used simple games to teach,” she explains, and eventually they started playing football.

 “They loved playing, and would even look forward to coming to school for it. On the field during matches, I insisted they spoke only in English. They would count players and keep score themselves, and did a lot of regular school work out on the field.”
Neha then set up a football team, and got in touch with other TFI fellows in Pune who were running a small project to develop leadership skills through football. Their project had older students coach the younger ones, putting them in leadership positions. “There was a 30-day-long league happening in Pune in 2011 with 14 teams. I drove my kids down there for a friendly game, since they couldn’t be in the city for the whole month. Once the championship ended, my team played the winners, and beat them 5 - 0. It was a fabulous day for them,” Sahu exclaims, who had been coaching the team herself, along with volunteers.

Neha Sahu of Just For Kicks

Levelling the playing field
A league was set up in Mumbai in 2012 with teams coming up in various public and low income private schools, even ones from non-profits other than TFI such as Aseema, Akanksha Foundation, and the Dream India Foundation. Eventually the football fever spread to Hyderabad and Bangalore as well, and now the champions of each city compete with each other in a national league in Mumbai. This full-fledged organised programme run by Sahu and Plakkot has trained coaches divided across teams in each city, “We started with passionate footballers who would volunteer as coaches, but as the programme got bigger, that was not a viable model. We now have full time trained coaches.”

Bringing organised sports to grass root schools and nurturing physical talent as well as leadership traits has been the primary focus for the duo. In the five years the organisation has been running, a minimum of three hour practices a week has helped a lot of the students excel at the sport, with some of them even wanting to play professionally. Students from JFK now invite elite schools to play as well with the likes of Mumbai’s Ambani school playing students from low income schools, levelling the playing field. “The top 10 players from the last tournament are going to the UK to train with an English Premier League Club, and with 5 JFK students along with 5 elite school students having been chosen by a technical panel,” Sahu shares excitedly. Pune FC and Mumbai City FC have also scouted players from JFK for training.

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Obstacles along the way
Setting up an organisation football association for low income municipality and private schools comes with a whole new set of challenges that privileged schools do not face. For starters, while some school principals were very supportive and even excited about the idea, others asked why students should bother to learn how to play football. Just For Kicks had to work hard to convince sceptics of the life skills that come with learning a team sport.

“We don’t let any school register only boys to play,” shares Sahu, ensuring that JFK has a good gender ratio which is currently at 60 - 40. Different divisions have been set up for girls and boys. Another challenge they faced was getting parents on board, especially those with daughters. “In Govandi, girls started playing five years ago. They would sneak out of their homes with an enthusiastic school teacher who believed in the cause and brought them to JFK practices. Clad from head to toe in a hijab and tights, these young girls just wanted to play football,” we learn from Sahu. The organisation worked hard to convince the parents of the importance of sports for an all-rounded education and now, 50 girls play from Govandi in regular shorts and jerseys and were champions three years in a row.

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“The conversation with parents of boys is different, their concerns are about distraction from education, so they’re not interested in organised sports. Most of these children aren’t where they should be academically, so parents think that should be the only focus,” she tells us. To keep parents comfortable and in the loop, JFK organises regular parent sessions annually where they lay out the objective of the programme and development goals for the entire year.

Sahu confides, talking about yet another issue--that of space, “While the Right To Education Act mandates all schools to have a playground, a lot of them don’t. But we manage to find space to play, there are enough grounds in these cities.”
Corporate companies fund the programme through their CSR initiatives, while the rest of the capital comes from crowd funding. Individuals can even buy a team for 15,000 rupees a year, with sports fanatics cheering on the teams they own enthusiastically, match after match.

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