2 Dec 2011

Why Euro 2012 will hit GCSE results

So now we know England’s group opponents in next summer’s European Championship tournament: Ukraine, Sweden and France.

But the half a million or so schoolchildren taking GCSEs next year might be better off if the international football tournaments didn’t take place at all – or at least if England had failed to qualify!

Next summer – as with the European Championship and the World Cup tournaments in past years – the football in mid to late June overlaps with almost half of the GCSE examination timetable.

And some astonishing research by a team of economists from Bristol and Oxford universities shows that in those even-numbered years when England are usually involved in international football, students’ GCSE results are significantly worse.

For those teenagers who take GCSE exams during the tournament, results fall by an eighth of a grade per subject on average. And for some students, notably boys from deprived backgrounds, the damage can be more than a quarter of a grade on average per subject. Only about a tenth of the population was unaffected – largely middle-class girls.

The effect seems partly linked to the tournaments being staged, but even more to England’s participation. In 2008, when England failed to qualify for the European Championship, the results were much closer to years such as 2007 and 2005 when there was no major international football. So today’s 19-year-olds can perhaps thank the then England manager Steve McLaren for inadvertently bringing them rather better GCSE results!

Today’s report was compiled by Dr Robert Metcalfe of Merton College at the University of Oxford (an avid footballer in his youth), and Prof Simon Burgess and Dr Steven Proud of Bristol University. They deny that their findings are a statistical freak or aberration. The results, they say, are based on more than 25.7 million GCSE exam results over the seven years from 2002 to 2008, covering 3.6 million school students.

Nowadays nearly every match at the World Cup finals or the European Championship is shown live on TV; and there is much greater attention paid to England’s performance in such tournaments than was the case 30 or 40 years ago. And the competitions last longer. The huge diet of football on TV during these frenzied times is thought to act as a distraction from students doing last-minute revision. In many cases students will have spent the eve of a GCSE exam watching football.

And many of those students taking GCSEs in 2012 will be hit a second time, as they are due to take A-levels at the time of the 2014 World Cup. And those who then take a gap year before a three-year course at university may be affected a third time, since they will probably take their university final exams during the 2018 World Cup.

The economists say the answer is simple – move the exam timetable forward by three weeks. They argue that this measure would be a lot less expensive than most of the policies that have been pursued, or which are advocated, to improve the exam performance of disadvantaged boys – such as the literacy hour in schools, or improving pupil-teacher ratios.

Robert Metcalfe admits his work was prompted by his own experience as a schoolboy of being distracted by football tournaments. He says: “Time spent watching and talking about football is clearly time not spent studying – so our findings give an indication of just how student effort matters for achievement at GCSE…

“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.”

A DfE spokesman said: “Changing exams timing would be a massive upheaval for millions of teachers, parents and pupils and the way schools taught. Bringing forward the exam season by several weeks would mean far less teaching time in the classroom with a major risk to students’ results.

“It’s a bit ridiculous to suggest building school life around major sporting events because it’s impossible to see where you would draw the line. Students sit modules throughout the year so these researchers would surely have to investigate the impact of all sporting fixtures to identify the optimum timetable – like the Rugby World Cup, Champions League and the Ashes.”

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