Marcus Rashford is now on the GCSE syllabus – exactly where he belongs

Marcus Rashford is now on the GCSE syllabus – exactly where he belongs
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In March 2000, something quite odd happened: Staffordshire University hit the headlines. Students would be offered the chance to study David Beckham as part of a 12-week course in “football culture”. This was big news for a university otherwise best known for producing the rock band Editors.

Staffordshire University’s Professor Ellis Cashmore was at pains to stress that Beckham was just one small part of the course, which would in fact examine “the rise of football from its folk origins in the 17th century to the power it’s become and the central place it occupies in British culture, and indeed world culture, today”.

But the course was dubbed “David Beckham studies”, which then – obviously – became shorthand for everything wrong with universities. See also: golf course management. Waste of time! Get out there and earn a living!

I only mention all this because it has been announced that GCSE students will soon be able to study another famous footballer, Marcus Rashford, as part of a media studies course. My hunch is that the reaction to this will be slightly different. You would have to be very stupid and oddly traditional – obsessed with, say, imperial weights and measures – not to see the benefits of teenagers learning more about Rashford and the ways in which he has harnessed the media to promote his campaigns on food poverty and free school meals.

“Marcus Rashford is one of the most influential and inspirational young people in the UK, so students can learn a huge amount from how he uses social media to make a real impact,” said Sandra Allan, AQA’s head of curriculum for creative arts. “It’s not just an opportunity for them to learn about social media – it’s also a great way to learn about important social and race issues as part of our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion in the curriculum.”

It is worth returning at this point to Professor Ellis Cashmore, whose reasons for including Beckham on his course were not, perhaps, quite so commendable. “I think [Beckham] embodies the spirit of the times; he doesn’t actually say much or do much,” explained Cashmore. “Unlike icons of the past, he doesn’t take a political stand or engage with any kind of social issues of the day.

“But maybe that’s just what we want in the early 21st century: a person who doesn’t actually do much, but onto [whom] we can displace all our fantasies. He occupies so much of our attention; we write and we talk about him. He is a central figure in our culture at the moment, like him or loathe him.”

It might be a stretch to suggest that the attitude and behaviour of two Manchester United footballers, separated by 20-odd years, reflects a deeper cultural shift. But it is certainly of interest – and immensely cheering – to note that the reasons for a footballer to be included on an academic syllabus have changed so strikingly. In 2000, it was because Beckham didn’t take “a political stand”; today, it is precisely because Rashford does. That certainly feels like progress, and we should applaud AQA for its willingness to put together an original and creative syllabus. Parents, surely, will have no objection to their sons and daughters learning about a young footballer who has tackled food poverty, promotes reading, and cares deeply about fighting racism in the UK?

There is one final point, which my colleague Hamish McRae touched on in his column earlier this month: young people’s role models are changing. US Open winner Emma Raducanu has succeeded through hard work and immense skill; likewise 13-year-old Olympic skateboarder Sky Brown. As these names become better known, advertisers will be forced to shift their focus, and the qualities embodied by Raducanu, Brown and Rashford will therefore become immensely lucrative and aspirational. And so, one hopes, the cycle continues.

I wonder, then, if we are coming to the end of the era in which reality television stars and “celebrities” are idolised; when being famous is a goal in itself. That seems to be changing: young people now look to those with drive and decency. Rashford is at the top of that list, and absolutely belongs on the academic syllabus. Staffordshire University should take note: “Marcus Rashford studies” would, I suspect, be immensely popular.

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