SUNDERLAND AFC is extending its award-winning community education programme with the opening of a Centre of Light.

Part of the Stadium of Light complex is to be converted into a modern learning facility to boost the club's already flourishing community scheme.

The development received the final shot-in-the-arm with grant awards of £535,840 from the Football Foundation and £190,000 from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust.

Equipped with backing from information technology supplier Computacentre, it brings the total funding and support for the project to more than £730,000.

It will enable the club's community programme, already the largest in Britain, to more than double the number of children it reaches each year.

The programme was hailed as "a shining example" in its recent assessment for complying with the FA's national Fans' Charter.

Part of the north-west corner of the Stadium of Light will be converted into a two-storey learning and football development centre.

Planning permission was granted last November and preparation work is underway.

The centre will be for the sole use of the club's education and community teams.

It will feature classrooms with the latest in information technology equipment and provide a base for more than 60 members of the SAFCommunity staff, who run coaching courses across the North-East and Scotland.

The extended programme will target disabled footballers and youngsters at risk of offending.

Up to 340,000 children a year will reap the benefits of the programme, receiving increased exposure to education and learning, healthier lifestyles and anti-drugs information.

Endorsements have come from the top, including praise from Prime Minister Tony Blair and Government Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong.

Football Foundation chairman Lord Pendry said it underlines the "vital role" football can perform in local communities.

Club chairman, Bob Murray, said: "We have always acknowledged we have an important role to play in Sunderland and across the region.

"Our community scheme is just one of the ways in which we give something back to our young supporters.

"To do this we need first class facilities and we are committed to providing these.