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EURO 2012 could hit school exam results

Press release issued: 2 December 2011

School students who take their GCSEs during a major international football tournament – such as the FIFA World Cup or the UEFA European Championship – get worse exam results than they would in a football-free summer. That is the central finding of new research published by the University of Bristol.

Professor Simon Burgess and Dr Steven Proud of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) and Dr Robert Metcalfe of the University of Oxford have analysed the GCSE records of around three and a half million school students over seven years. Their study finds that:

· School students who sat their exams in even-numbered years when there was a big summer football event tended to put in less effort and get worse results on average than those who took their exams in years without major tournaments.

· The size of the effect on students’ educational outcomes varies a great deal depending on the degree to which students reduce effort, which in turn depends on their interest in football.

· The average effect on specific exams taken during the tournament is about a quarter of a grade per subject. This is equivalent to half of the effect of having an ineffective teacher as opposed to an effective teacher.

· For some students, the effect is much greater. Both male and female students are affected, and students from all parts of society. But on average the results of boys and more disadvantaged students are more affected.

· For the most-affected groups – boys from disadvantaged families – the effect on specific exams is about a half of a grade per subject. This effect is similar to the effect of having a very ineffective teacher as opposed to a very effective teacher.

Co-author Dr Robert Metcalfe comments on the findings: ‘Time spent watching and talking about football is clearly time not spent studying – so our findings give an indication of just how much student effort matters for achievement at GCSE.

‘It is worth studying hard, avoiding distractions and concentrating on work, particularly last minute effort just before the exams.’

What should we do about it? Professor Simon Burgess makes three suggestions:

‘With Euro 2012 coming up next summer, we should be aware of this issue and see what kind of support schools can provide to help students’ concentration.

‘Further out, we should perhaps try to shift the exams to just three weeks earlier in the year, so that they don’t clash with the big football tournaments.

‘More broadly, we need to recognise the importance of effort in driving educational achievement. There’s lots of discussion of school resources, class size and family background, but effort is rarely mentioned in policy debates.

‘Effort is something that policy can attempt to influence fairly rapidly and straightforwardly. The evidence we’ve found gives us an opportunity to use policies to influence attainment, particularly of disadvantaged kids.’

To make their discovery about the impact of student effort on exam results, the researchers used the fact that every other summer there is a major international football tournament, which completely dominates the news media.

GCSE exams partially overlap with the tournament in these even-numbered years. So it is possible to compare how the same student does in exams in the period before the tournament and exams during the tournament, and then compare that difference in years when there is a tournament and years when there isn’t. 

The data are from the National Pupil Database, which cover all students in state schools in England – 93 per cent of all students – from 2002 to 2008. As pupils cannot select the year of birth, the researchers had a ‘natural experiment’ to demonstrate the causal impact of football tournaments on GCSE results.

'Student effort and educational attainment: Using the England football team to identify the education production function’ by Robert Metcalfe (University of Oxford), Simon Burgess (CMPO, University of Bristol), and Steven Proud (University of Bristol), CMPO Discussion Paper No. 11/276, will be published on Saturday 3 December.

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