Wednesday 25 April 2018

Schools mess can't be allowed to fester

John Greene

John Greene

This time last year we reported on an issue in Leinster post-primary schools soccer which led to 57 teams being excluded from competition because the teachers in charge of those teams had failed to register them properly on a new online system.

There was deep frustration among those teachers who had grappled with the system, but also in the Leinster branch of the FAIS which felt it had gone to every length possible – including moving the deadline for registration four times – to help schools.

We estimated that 1,400 teenagers had lost out on the chance to play schools football but this was disputed by the Branch, although it did put the amount at between 700 and 1,400. Either way, it's too many children missing out on football. The teachers blamed the Branch, the Branch blamed the teachers but where the fault lay hardly mattered to those who had missed out.

Incredibly, 12 months on, the situation has been repeated. This time, 48 teams from 31 schools have been excluded from competition on the same grounds. And again there is anger, and finger-pointing, on both sides.

Over the last three weeks, we have looked in great detail at this issue. We have listened to the Branch, and to a handful of teachers from the 31 schools affected this year. And both sides make strong arguments about why the other side is to blame, none of which is of any comfort to the students who will miss out on football. We estimate that number to be over 600 this year.

Michael Molyneaux of the Munster branch of FAIS says they do not exclude teams who mess up the registration process. "We want teams to play, we want sport in schools because we know how important sport is in schools," he said. "We will give them a warning or a €50 fine at worst, but we would never kick a team out. Sport is too important to young people. They need it nowadays. It's an outlet for them."

The Leinster branch is obviously the largest and one of its arguments is that it must stick to the schedule to finish competitions in time. It organises 80 competitions each school year, 62 in boys' football, and 18 in girls'. Over 650 teams from over 200 schools take part.

The Branch points to the fact that there are fewer teams excluded from competitions this year than last year, and also that when the registration process was manual there were far greater numbers of teams disqualified, perhaps as much as twice as many.

The online system is in the second year of a two-year trial and will more than likely be made permanent. There should be no issue with that because this is the way all sports administrators are going, and the other branches will eventually have to follow suit. The Leinster branch was the first to embrace the system, known as Project Inform, which is already successfully active across many units of the FAI, including the Airtricity League.

"The punishment for Rule 10 of our bye-laws about player registration for most of the time of the FAI Schools Leinster branch, which commenced in 1968, has been removal," says Branch secretary Donal Conway. "That has been the way for an awful long time. When we went to Project Inform we didn't all of a sudden bring in a battery of penalties. We had all those penalties and rules, Rule 10 didn't change, which is our rule in respect of registration and it's still the same."

At a stormy branch meeting two weeks ago, there was little sympathy for those who had been kicked out of competitions because it was felt that every possible assistance had been offered to all schools, including deadline extensions and tutorials.

Asked about this anger, Donal Conway said: "The people who are working in the Branch, who are delivering that menu of 62 competitions in the boys' section and obviously are in compliant schools, their anger is because they think that here is a story that represents the Branch as heartless, that we don't care whether boys play or don't play, when the whole motivation is to provide football for boys and girls across second level in Leinster. That's what they devote their spare time to and yet they're being tarred as preventing boys and girls from playing football."

But for those teachers who have fallen foul of Rule 10, there is a feeling of despair. Dublin footballer Kevin Nolan, a teacher in Adamstown CC, gave his explanation as to why his team was removed: "There are three teachers in the school looking after soccer. I took the under 15s because I'd had them last year and I want to see them through. So I set my team up [on the system] but one of the other teachers didn't know I had a team set up so he deleted it by accident without me knowing it. So I went on about my business. There was an email sent out but I just glanced at it as I thought I'd all my players set up and that was my mistake. I hold my hands up but the under 15 team, that's 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds who are being denied a bit of competitive football."

John O'Reilly, a teacher in Marian College, was away on a school trip in Manchester and missed an important email alerting him to a problem with his registration. By the time he returned, it was too late and his first years had been removed from competition. In its defence, the Branch says the email to O'Reilly was copied to the school.

Another teacher, who asked not be named, said: "This mess that they have created is expecting too much from teachers, especially seeing as we pay an affiliation fee to FAIS and give of our time outside school hours for training and matches."

Schools have even turned to politicians to plead their case. Wexford TD Mick Wallace (pictured) has coached at Oatlands College, one of those affected this year. He believes that if schools are not getting the registration right, then the association needs to be proactive in helping the teachers to be compliant. This is something likely to be undertaken next year by the Branch, but of course it's too late for this season.

"Things are run in a more clinical fashion in soccer in terms of registration and fixtures and that," says Wallace, "and it is better organised than a lot of other sports but this also makes them [officials] more bureaucratic. The problem I see is that the FAI need to have a stronger hand in what's happening in schools football. They have to be more involved.

"There also has to be some flexibility. You've got to structure things around your rules, and that's fair enough, but there has to be common sense as well."

It appears there is no turning back this year. Competitions are now up and running so there will be no amnesty but some teachers are now pushing for a secondary competition to give their teams games. Wallace supports this, and he has raised it with the FAI, so this is maybe a way around the problem for this year.

But the Branch and those schools which fell foul of Rule 10 need to make sure that this doesn't happen again.

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