Schools football strategy scores A+

The name Emma Highwood may not be familiar to Australian fans as a Tim Cahill, a Stephanie Catley or a Thomas Broich, but she is proving to be a star player of a different kind.

The name Emma Highwood may not be familiar to Australian fans as a Tim Cahill, a Stephanie Catley or a Thomas Broich, but she is proving to be a star player of a different kind.

Away from the spotlight, Highwood, Head of Community Football at FFA, is working tirelessly to help realise her dream of making football the biggest and most popular sport in the country - and her latest strategy, I believe, will be a key part of that wish.

In short, the “Whole of Football Schools Strategy” is a framework to advance the future of football by harnessing the power of the Beautiful Game to connect with school communities, inspire educational outcomes and convert participants to fans.

Crucially, Hyundai A-League and Westfield W-League clubs will be the ‘shopfront- of the sport in schools under this new strategy.

Launched just before the World Cup at a junior school on a small, bumpy pitch in Sydney, this big plan was officially unveiled but flew mostly under the media radar as the country geared up for a World Cup in Brazil.

If we want to reach the level of a Chile, a Columbia or a France, then these are the steps we need to be taking. Now.

Of course, football has always been a part of schools sports curriculums in Australia, as evidenced by the most recent participation census revealing over 400,000 students are engaged in school football programs and competitions nationally.

But there hasn-t been an overall strategy like this before, one where key stakeholders - such as member federations, Hyundai A-League and Westfield W-League clubs - have been front and centre of a clear framework for football within the vast school system.

If we get this right the strategy has fantastic potential for further advancing football in Australia inside such a large segment of society.

That-s what makes this strategy so shrewd. There are long-term and short-term benefits for teachers and students across the massive landscape that is our schools sector. As such, for football, potential to super-charge national teams- and leagues- fan-bases - as well as player participation - is massive.

By 2017, the schools strategy-s goal is for 1.6m participants in schools to be engaged in football with a conversion rate of 55% from school programs to frequent and organised football.

Part of this new strategy will be providing teachers with better coaching resources through the Mini-Roos project which continues to be the vehicle to introduce football to primary school-aged boys and girls.

English-born Highwood - a keen footballer herself before injury curtailed her playing career - has been a major force behind the new National Premier League (NPL) and the successful MyFootballClub online registration initiative.

She told me at Clovelly Public School in Sydney, where the schools strategy was launched, that like other grassroots initiatives, it forms part of a long-term mission for football in Australia.

“It-s important because if we want to become the biggest and most popular sport in the country - which I believe we will,” Highwood said.

“We need to ensure we-re introducing kids to the game in the school.”

And if you need inspiration for the vision, a former Tucker Road Primary School student - and now Westfield Matildas star - Stephanie Catley is your perfect role model.

She began playing sport at school in Melbourne, fell in love with football and now is one of Australia-s great hopes for next year-s FIFA Women-s World Cup as well as a Westfield W-League grand final winner.

“I played every sport you can think of as I went through primary school and the love and passion that my teachers showed for football in particular definitely contributed to my eagerness to be involved with the game,” says the Melbourne Victory and Westfield Matildas star defender.

“I joined my first junior club when I was six because I enjoyed playing at school so much.”

Tap here to download the FFA Whole of Football Schools Strategy