There can’t be many young people whose daily educational experience includes encountering a bona fide national hero.
But for those at the Canolfan yr Afon Pupil Referral Unit, in Ebbw Vale, that’s been the case for the last four years as they’ve been ably assisted by former Everton football icon Neville Southall MBE.
Not that the record cap holder – he played 92 times between the sticks for the Welsh national football team – cares if his reputation precedes him.
His sole vocation these days is to play at least some part in helping these complex-needs youngsters live a life that can give them their own rewards, a sense of self-worth and personal success.
Neville’s disregard for his own huge reputation from his goalkeeping days is conveyed with a sincerity that matches his passionate commitment to UNISON – especially in his role as an international officer and his desire for the union movement to lead a restructuring of Britain.
“I have no time for egos, full stop, in any organisation,” he explains. And that’s especially so with organisations that can work together to give kids the help, time and attention that they desperately need.
“I honestly believe there are problems with the school system as early as the primary years,” he says. “I believe the system is broken.
“However, I’m convinced that if key organisations link-up to get to the heart of the matter – say UNISON, other unions, the police, the NHS, businesses, local authorities, you name it – we can not only rebuild society from the grassroots, but ultimately save millions on social and healthcare and police costs in the future. UNISON can really drive this.”
When it comes to his zero-tolerance for egoism, Neville has form.
In a 22-year career, he won two top-flight league championships, two FA Cups and a European trophy with his beloved Everton. He was nominated four times by football’s official statistical body as the world’s best keeper, named as the 1985 player of the year by the Football Writers’ Association, named by his fellow players in their team of the year on four successive years and was ultimately recognised in the 1996 honours list.
Photo: Duncan Raban/EMPICS Entertainment
Yet he titled his highly successful autobiography The Binman Chronicles, in recognition of one of his many jobs – others included waiter and hod-carrier – before his footballing breakthrough in 1980.
And what drives this sporting champion now – his belief in the need to completely overhaul primary schools – is based on his own experience in the education sector for the past decade.
“It’s no good giving some kids a supposed education that they just can’t take. That does nobody any good, least of all them.
“University, exams, classic education – great for those who can cope. Even some apprenticeships require maths and English. Again – great.
“But some kids really haven’t got beyond ABC, and as for the times tables… But watch them take a bike apart and put it back together, or build a wall, and then they can show how much they understand the maths and English needed in those processes very well, in their own way.
“We’ve got to spot these talents and not expect them to fit into boxes. I know it’s not easy trying to find a solution for everyone, but we’ve got to try.”
Noting that society has to change, particularly in terms of how it assesses children and young people from primary school onward, he is keen to stress that such assessment must not be negative.
It must involve looking for strengths as well as weaknesses, he says, even that young. “Some kids tell me that they’ve had problems right from the start, but no-one ever noticed and they couldn’t explain it themselves.
“I know this as a foster parent. I genuinely don’t think it’s impossible to change what we do from the earliest years, because it ain’t working for lots of them. We can’t just keep expecting a system to work which clearly doesn’t.”
Everton children’s coaching session in 2014. Photo: Jon Buckle/Everton FC/PA Images
While Neville says that his line of thinking is radical, he insists that it’s also realistic and that a pro-active opportunity to restructure has already presented itself.
“The years from three to five are crucial. It’s in these years that we can’t afford to ignore any physical and mental health issues that either might be apparent or hidden.
“That’s why I’m glad there’s now so much UNISON focus on mental health and wellbeing.”
Though the system is broken, it’s not the teachers’ fault, he says.
“In fact, if we take a new view of how to map out learning programmes for each kid, then teachers would know exactly what to do.”
He points out that the ultimate solution comes down to having more teachers and smaller classrooms. But that costs money.
“I know. Now people will mention the cuts. Yeah, they’re happening – we all know that. But you can’t just accept them.
“Instead we, the unions, can show that there’s a better way. Okay, if things rest on finance, then let’s drive the inward investment ourselves.”
Neville explains that unions should link up with businesses and other contacts. “By talking about the positivity and potential of our regions – especially here in south Wales – and building ourselves up, we can make the less advantaged areas more attractive. And then you’ve got a knock-on effect.
“Bring the finance and the investment in ourselves, with a view to assisting those services and sectors that have been hit so hard.”
That will all take time and require a new way of thinking, but he insists that “UNISON is massive. We’re big enough now not just to protect our members’ interests – although that’s important – but also to start building and growing that better society which, if you think about it, is exactly about protecting our members anyway.
“I’m a big believer in just getting together and saying, ‘Right, you do that, I can do the other, let’s push on’.”
“But we’ve got to start thinking differently and get rid of the mindsets – doing as we’ve always done, just because that’s how it’s always been, and just accepting the setbacks.”
Given his success at Everton, it’s surprising to hear him extol the recent success of another top-flight club to reinforce this broad point.
“A few years back, I was annoyed hearing people say Everton could never win the league again. So I said, ‘Of course they can.’ Otherwise why bother? Seriously. But people laughed.
“The following season, Leicester came from the bottom of the league and won it instead! No-one’s laughing now.
“It’s the same in education. But don’t start me on those league tables. How do they measure if a kid’s confidence has improved? Where’s that league table? There isn’t one, because you can’t measure it, but it’s real when you see it growing and the effects are amazing.
“We need to show what can be done if we believe. Like Leicester. There was a time when we didn’t have an NHS, when people probably didn’t think that could happen either. But it did. From Wales!
“I really believe the time has come for unions to get into a higher gear. If we help the kids, the grassroots, it’ll eventually pay off for everyone.”
Words: Greg Murphy. Portrait: David Davies/PA