"They may be pro footballers, but to me they're students in tracksuits": Meeting the teachers who educate Lancashire's most promising athletes
At any one time, there is an estimated 1.5 million young, up-and-coming athletes taking part in organised youth football in England, every single one of them likely harbouring lofty dreams of forging an illustrious career in the sport. As our national game and the world's most popular sport, football captures the imagination like little else, promising untold riches, fame, and glory.
It's intoxicating. But the hard, cold reality represented by the numbers is somewhat more sobering.
Of those 1.5 million young hopefuls, an estimated 180 will make it to the Premier League and the highest level of the sport in this country representing a success rate of just 0.012%. Or, to put it in other terms, around the same odds of you walking into a field full of clovers, bending down, plunking one at random, and counting not just three leaves, but four.
Should a young footballer be supremely talented enough to be accepted into a professional football club's academy, their chances of making a career in the sport naturally increase. After all, top-tier academies across the country deal only in the crème de la crème, quite literally the very best of the best that the entire country has to offer at that age.
But the fact still remains that, of the estimated 10,000 to 12,000 young boys currently plying their burgeoning trade in professional football club's academies, just 0.5% of them will ever be able to make a living from the game they so dearly love, let alone reach its pinnacle. That's one in every 200 of the UK's best and brightest, the aforementioned crème de la crème.
Football, it goes without saying, is a hugely competitive business. Not only do you have to be good compared to your peers, you have to be outstanding. And not only do you have to be outstanding, but you have to be lucky and visible enough to be recruited into the academy system, where you then have to shine amongst countless others like you.
And your competition often isn't just the best players Preston, Blackpool, Blackburn, or Burnley has to offer, it can be the best the entire North West, the UK, Europe, or the world has to offer. If, at that point, you're still outstanding, you might just be in with a shot. Frankly, it can't be stated enough: it doesn't get much more competitive than football.
That brutal dichotomy between the overpowering allure of actually making it big in the game and the parallel untold difficulty of actually thriving in such a cut-throat field is a potential recipe for disaster. As a result, football clubs in the North West and across the UK are increasingly offering more all-encompassing and holistic pastoral care to their young hopefuls.
And part of that incorporates a healthy and balanced focus on education, which is where Lauren Higgins comes in.
Lancashire born and bred, Lauren is the Director of LH Educational Services, a company which provides bespoke teaching programmes for budding young footballers at a range of sporting institutions and academies in the North West, including Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers Sports College, and Burnley FC.
Malcolm X once said that 'education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today'. With syllabi tailored to help their Lancashire-wide network of students enjoy learning and achieve the results they need, LHES is there to make sure the North West's footballers have their academic passports ready to be stamped if necessary.
"It all began by me spotting an opportunity and acting upon it," explains Lauren, who founded LHES four years ago. "My husband worked at a local football club who were in need of someone to provide English tuition to some of their academy players, and I offered to use my skills to do so. That's how I managed to land myself some private tuition work at Burnley FC.
"At this time, [Burnley] were keen to really develop and improve the education model that they were running and I offered to help by writing their curriculum to help boost the overall exam grades of their players," adds Lauren, who has been a secondary school teacher since she was 23. "I could really visualise how some of the fantastic work that goes on in schools could benefit the players alongside their training programmes.
"It was a huge success," she continues. "Players were making great improvement in their English and so I offered to extend this out in other subjects. They trusted me and Burnley became this beacon for educational achievement: I actually got invited down to the Premier League to pitch my curriculum - little old me down in London to talk to all these white collar execs!
"It was another world, but I held my own and now I run my own successful business in the same field."
Consisting of a team of expert educators with countless years of teaching experience, exam success, and curriculum development, LHES was originally founded in September 2017 and has gone from strength-to-strength ever since then, with their impressive growth largely owing to their steadfast mantra of placing quality teaching at the heart of what they do.
"We deliver bespoke educational programmes to professional athletes alongside their sporting commitments," says Lauren, 31, who studied English at Newcastle University before undertaking her PGCE at Edge Hill University. "[We work] primarily with academy players under the age of 18 as clubs have a duty to supplement and support the academic commitments the players have outside football... that's where we come in!"
"We work with football clubs to deliver qualifications such as GCSEs, Functional Skills, and American SAT provision to their professional players and I've been really lucky to work with some fantastic football clubs who really champion the academic efforts of their players," she adds. "They're open to new ideas and are keen to embed education firmly into the players' training programmes."
Having previously worked in schools rather than in the world of business, entering the world of entrepreneurship was an entirely new experience for Lauren, whose husband Jack Higgins is currently Academy Manager at Fleetwood Town Football Club having previously also worked at Burnley FC. But it was nevertheless one she approached with relish.
"From negotiating contracts and price points to embedding quality assurance systems, I'm still learning every day but make it my mission to know all the finer details of my business from top to bottom," she explains, with LHES now employing six teachers. "I was really nervous at first but have learnt to always take one step at a time.
"Our USP is that we deliver a curriculum that is 'open' to students of all exam boards so, for example, we might teach a class of players who are from six different schools and who are studying three different exam boards, which can be hugely challenging," she adds. "[But] LHES have devised a unique curriculum that all of these players can follow.
"At the end of the day, we want students to leave our lessons having learnt a new skill or concept that will ultimately positively impact their exam grade."
Coupling quality teaching with the flexibility necessary to operate within the inner sanctum of the regimented professional sports industry, LHES' formula promotes academic success by being adaptable to hybrid day-release training models or a full-time schedules. Fundamentally, lessons not only have to be effective, but have to work around sporting commitments, too.
"I always say that they may be professional football players in one regard but, to me, they're students in tracksuits!" says Lauren. "Some players are young and under tremendous pressure but, from what I've experienced, clubs are fantastic at putting systems in place to support them. More and more emphasis is being placed on the wellbeing of young athletes and rightly so.
"This includes quality educational provision to develop them off the field, should they not make it in the game," she adds. "As is common knowledge, such a small percentage of lads actually make it to professional level - less than one percent - so ensuring they receive qualifications outside of football enables them to have a proactive plan B, should they need it."
Naturally, Covid has been tricky - even an industry as vast and globalised as football couldn't escape the grips of the pandemic.
"Covid turned my business, like with many other things, completely upside down," explains Lauren. "Whereas before the pandemic we'd be teaching face-to-face lessons, we had to quickly flip our learning online and master new IT systems. It was tricky at first - a lot of teaching relies on the bits you pick up when seeing someone in person.
"But the players were so adaptable that we all learnt together."
Looking to the future, Lauren says she is 'excited' by where LHES can go. "Once, I'd have never known what I do for a job and what LHES does as a company was a genuine possibility as a business," says Lauren. "Prior to starting the company, I had absolutely no business acumen whatsoever, but I've made it my own personal business to learn."
And, for someone in the business of learning, that's no bad mantra to embody.
"It's truly fantastic work and I've been privileged to teach players from across the country and the world and even some who have gone on to begin what I'm sure will be fantastic football careers," says Lauren. "To work in a football environment is exciting and unique and to teach overlooking training pitches and in training academies is truly inspirational.
"I'm proud to have been able to offer this opportunity to other teachers," she adds. "But mostly I'm proud when my students secure their exam results - an achievement they can hold for life."