School Footy Comes Alive In Wolverhampton And Beyond

If Ian Mitchell has anything to do with it, Australian Rules football will become the premier football code across England. The Wolverhampton Wolverines president, and former captain of the England Dragonslayers national team has lived a double life, combining his senior development roles with a wonderful junior program that might yet become the blueprint for future schools development across Europe.


In a recent interview, Ian detailed the his journey in school footy – past, present and future – and it makes for a fascinating story of determination and vision.


“Sometimes, when going about daily life it can be too easy to carry on from day-to-day without ever stopping to reflect on what is happening. Writing this has given me that opportunity and it makes me realise I should do it far more often than I currently do.”


“Firstly, I am lucky that the school I work at, the head teacher and the department of which I am a part, value the use of sport to enrich students’ lives. (Check us out through @BrownhillsPE on Twitter!) I am even luckier that they allow me the opportunity to enrich student lives using a minority sport. Once the students have got their heads around the game then I can honestly count on one hand the amount of students who have genuinely not enjoyed an experience of Aussie Rules. That is not to say all who have tried it continue to play; that remains an ongoing goal of mine – to raise the percentage of those who join local clubs.”


“Let me get one thing clear from the off; if it was down to me then soccer wouldn’t be taught in curriculum time. All those who wish to play football can do so at lunch, after school practice and matches or for the thousands of local teams at evenings and weekends. In my opinion, schools should take students out of their comfort zone by getting them involved in ‘new’ sports, teaching them to transfer skills they have learnt in rugby and football and apply them in an unfamiliar setting. That is what I try to do at my secondary school.”


“I have tried numerous ways of introducing the game. Simply using the ‘we’re going to try something different for a few weeks’ approach has worked often enough. As has ‘there’s a game I think you’d love, combining kicking the ball and the physicality of rugby.’ I have not long finished teaching a unit of work called ‘football from around the world’ which encompasses Gaelic football, American football and the game I came to love around ten years ago now, Australian Rules Football.”


“Ten years ago I spent the now-seemingly obligatory year in Australia for many young British graduates. It was there, sitting in the sun watching Adelaide Crows at AAMI stadium (through tickets purchased via a friend) that I was engrossed in this sporting spectacle of athleticism, agility and skill that I fell in love with footy. Despite the Crows going down with a last-gasp goal to lose by two points to West Coast, I was an avid fan from that point on. I barely missed a game on TV all season as I moved around the country. It probably helped that the Crows had an excellent side at that time (think Riccuito et al).”


“To cut a long (and frankly boring story) short, I returned home and promptly fell out of love with my first love – soccer. A quick Google search led to me joining an Aussie Rules club in Birmingham; approximately a two-hour round trip from my Wolverhampton home. A year on and I had started a team up in Wolverhanpton, the Wolverines (, who are still going strong seven years later.”


“Many of these players are ex-students of mine and some have become exceptional young players, going on to represent England, Great Britain, the European Legion v the AIS and even the World XVIII in the National State Champs held in Blacktown, New South Wales  a few years ago. To me that is what teaching is about; providing opportunities for young people and then when they take them then the pride is indescribable. I have been so lucky in that playing footy has allowed me to do things I never thought possible such as captaining my country. I want other young people to have that opportunity.”


“The programmes through which I have taught footy at Brownhills School and its surrounding primaries have been varied but equally rewarding. I count myself extremely fortunate in that my role at school has seen me working not only with secondary school students day-in day-out but also with primary school students on a weekly basis.”


“For a while I ran an after school primary school/secondary school club where one young lad religiously wore his Collingwood jumper every week – yes, they get everywhere – even Walsall! We also hosted a primary footy festival that was entirely coached and umpired by secondary school students, many of whom by this time were playing for the Wolverines. Two years ago I wrote a specification for Australian Rules football that was accepted by an exam board so that our students were able to be formally assessed in the sport, ultimately counting towards their final GCSE PE qualification. For two years I spent six weeks at a time in local primary schools, teaching skills-based sessions to students from age 6 upwards.”


“I am currently delivering a lunchtime session to enthusiastic and keen younger students (many of whom experienced footy at primary school) having recently finished the previously mentioned ‘football from around the world’ unit with older students. I also have a different primary school visit my school every Friday and they get an Aussie Rules taster session that will culminate in another primary school footy festival this summer.”


“The future of footy in schools is up in the air currently with the GCSE PE curriculum being narrowed down meaning the choice of sports has diminished. I am going to propose that in my school we teach footy in place of soccer, certainly to the younger year groups.”


“As long as I get to keep seeing primary school students then I will keep introducing them to Aussie Rules. I can’t think of a better way to learn all the basic fundamental motor skills as well as a little bit of cross-curricular knowledge with little games based around Australia, its flag, geography and history.”


“My club are currently in the process of setting up some taster sessions with local schools to try and widen our player-base. This coupled with the AFL Europe equipment grant means that I hope more schools in the Midlands will soon be playing footy more regularly.”


“My footy future in the immediate term is exposing as many students as possible to the game but this has its limits and they are predominantly my school and its feeder schools. With my role as Junior Development Coordinator for AFL England I am hoping to establish some regional tournaments amongst active schools that may feed into an U16 national team taking on their Scottish counterparts later this year. I’d also like to develop a basic coaching course that teachers and sports coaches can take to give them the knowledge to introduce footy in their settings. With AFL Europe currently running a ball/equipment grant programme then this feels like the perfect time.”


“My ultimate dream is to start a company/business that goes around schools introducing Aussie Rules to primary and secondary schools; both students and staff alike. I would love this to be backed by the AFL but I’m unsure as to whether Europe is a priority development area for them currently. My next step in that case would be to weigh up my options in terms of funding, starting up a business and gaining a sufficient client base – I still have a mortgage to pay after all!”


“It’s important to say that there are other teachers replicating these kinds of models up and down the UK, don’t for one minute think that this is a one-man band. Some of the work I do has been inspired from what I have heard from teachers at the Huddersfield Rams or up in Scotland and the Kingdom Kangaroos. There is fantastic work being done in London at primary schools and newly-established Auskick/junior clubs such as the Clapham Cubs. This really forms the basis of my last goal; to link up all the good work happening around the country so that we have a joined up, cohesive approach to footy in the UK that can produce the next generation of footy players.”


“Whatever the future holds, I will still gain as much pride in lining up next to two ex-students for GB in Dublin as I do watching a primary school student master the hand pass for the first time or take their first mark. That’s not to mention everything in-between – students or ex-students debuting for my club, older students coaching, leading and officiating younger students or simply a student telling me in the corridors that they caught a bit of the footy on TV over the weekend and were gripped.”


To find out more about Ian’s work, you may contact him via the Wolverhampton Wolverines website at:

About Wesley Hull

Passionate lover of Australian Rules football. Have played and coached the game and now spend my time writing about the game I love and introducing young people to the game through school coaching. Will try and give back to the game what it has given me for more that 40 years.

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