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Can Manchester United's youth academy inspire this new technology training programme?

All too often, attempts at philanthropy and ESG can appear to be token gestures, handy for ticking a checkbox, issuing a press release and brand building but not much else. However, today services giant DXC Technology and Manchester United will announce an educational partnership that at first sight looks a great deal more than the paper on which it was written and which has brought in Manchester City Council's leader as well as the football club and its technology partner.

At an event at United’s hallowed Old Trafford ground, the pair will kick off a scheme called the DXC Digital Futures Academy, an ambitious programme intended to give 12- and 13-year-old local children the chance to learn tech and other skills. The launch will give an initial cohort of 50 children the chance to take extracurricular modules on themes including cybersecurity and virtual reality while also developing their knowledge of softer areas such as business etiquette, teamwork and leadership.

DXC describes it as a "first-of-a-kind 4-year pathfinder programme for disadvantaged schoolchildren (12-16) in the Greater Manchester area," saying that according to Manchester City Council’s Digital Strategy (2021-2026), 25% of the city's areas are within the highest scoring groups for digital exclusion.

On the day, the first wave of 50 students will be welcomed by Chris Halbard, President EMEA at DXC Technology and John Shiels, the Chief Executive at Manchester United Foundation, with Manchester City Council Leader, Bev Craig to speak about the importance of technology to Manchester's future.

DXC Digital Futures Academy draws on Manchester United's experience supporting young footballers

“It’s an amazing opportunity and something I’m not aware has ever been tried before,” John Shiels, chief executive of the Manchester United Foundation, which hosts community outreach programmes to help youngsters make positive choices for their futures, tells The Stack.

“Foundations of sports clubs do have relationships with commercial entities but nothing like the magnitude of this one. There’s been real care shown from the start. We intend to work in highly socially challenged areas of Greater Manchester where there’s talent but not much opportunity.

"Right from the start, we wanted to ask ‘What can we do that is transformational?’

“We’re going to nurture, develop and mould them so in four years’ time, kids that started with no choice, will have choices" he adds on a call this week.

Shiels said the effort has been based on a close collaboration with teachers and councils in order to avoid commonly well-meant but ineffective efforts. He added that he wants children with “stickability … it’s a big commitment but if we create this correctly there will be a feeling of team togetherness and we will nurture a love of learning.”

Both parties are at pains to stress that this is more than a gesture and both clearly recognise that some level of cynicism is natural. Although tech firms have long used apprenticeships as a way to address skills gaps, it’s highly unusual to focus on people of a younger age, but the Manchester United Foundation -- drawing on its own work helping nurture football talent for the club -- thinks starting early is critical.

“We need to open their eyes to what opportunities there are. If we leave it to after school, it’s possibly too late, you’ve missed valuable learning time,” Shiels said.

For DXC, EMEA President Chris Halbard said the surprising genesis of the project was actually his own scepticism of such projects and a desire to go well beyond lip service.

See also: Manchester United’s CEO of Digital Products & Experiences, Phil Lynch, on fans, data, partners