Sunday, October 21, 2012

Why Football Is Bad For Education: A Study of English School Children

Over the years, there has been plenty of debate over whether hosting international tournaments is good for a country’s economy or whether, as economists Georgios Kaventsos and Stefan Szymanski have argued*, they make people happy. But what would you say if I told you that football tournaments are bad for education?

Thanks to a colleague at Cornell, I just came across one of the more interesting football-related academic studies I have seen in a while. Conducted by three economists from Bristol and Oxford Universities**, it argues that major football tournaments distract children's attention from what they need to do: study. To quote the authors:
"The central idea is that the football tournaments dramatically raise the value of leisure time for some people, and correspondingly reduce the value of all other time uses. One of these time uses for students is the effort put into studying. Effort is to be understood in a broad sense as the number of hours spent preparing for the exams; this might include making the effort to ignore distractions and to create an environment to concentrate on study. We conjecture that the amount of productive study time is reduced both in the build-up to the tournament and then more significantly once the matches are under way."
Based on data collected between 2002 and 2008, the economists examined students' achievement on the so-called GCSE's (for the non-Brits out there, it's a standardized test called the General Certificate in Secondary Education taken around the age of 16) in years with and without either the FIFA World Cup or the UEFA European Championships.

The analyses are straightforward. First, the exams are always scheduled for May and June at the end of compulsory education, and students generally do slightly better in later subjects tested than earlier ones. So in any given year, the difference in scores between later and earlier subjects tends to be positive. Second, in tournament years, earlier test subjects (usually taken in May) do not overlap with the tournament being played, while later ones (usually taken in June) do. This means that the researchers were able to compare students' achievement  in subjects taken before and after the tournaments begin, both in tournament and non-tournament years.

Knowing these facts, the authors came to some startling conclusions. Below is the overall effect of  a major international tournament taking place on the (positive) difference between early and late subject scores at different levels of achievement (denoted by rank). Clearly, tournaments depress student scores; in years with tournaments, students do less well in the later subjects being tested. Moreover, the effect is particularly striking at the low end of achievement. The lower a student's rank, the more negative the impact of football on television on student scores.

Metcalfe, Burgess, and Proud (2011)
Aside from this general effect, there are some noticeable differences across different kinds of students. The two that are perhaps most interesting are differences across gender and differences across students of different income levels. The graphs below show, first, the effect of tournaments among boys and girls, and second the effect among students eligible/ineligible for free school meals to denote differences in families' income levels.

Metcalfe, Burgess, and Proud (2011)
Perhaps to no one’s surprise, boys' scores are much more significantly affected by the presence of a major tournament; the negative effect of footy on television is much stronger among boys than girls, and literally across the board – no matter the students’ ranks.

But that’s not all. The effect is also much stronger – that is, more strongly negative – among students eligible for a free school meal (indicated by FSM v. non-FSM). The upshot? Major international tournaments depress GSCE scores, and the negative effect of international tournaments on test scores are most pronounced among poorer boys.

Metcalfe, Burgess, and Proud (2011)
To quote the authors once more:
“English schoolchildren score worse on their exams when they are conducted during an international football tournament (World Cup or the European Championships).  The most-affected group is low-ability boys from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
To the social scientist in me, the results are utterly convincing. The data are high quality, and the econometric analyses expertly done. And yet, thinking back to my own youth, I found them slightly depressing. Educational inequality is undesirable, no matter what, and inequality that results from differences in individual ability is hard enough to manage. But inequalities that aren’t the result of an individual pupil’s ability and instead shaped by a child’s family background and gender are potentially overcome more easily. So should we therefore discourage boys from lower income families from watching the World Cup?

That’s a leap I’m not quite prepared to make.

Thanks to John C.!

Robert Metcalfe, Simon Burgess, and Steven Proud. 2011. "Student effort and educational attainment: Using the England football team to identify the education production function" November 2011 Working Paper No. 11/276, Centre for Market and Public Organisation Bristol Institute of Public Affairs, University of Bristol.

Georgios Kavetsos and Stefan Szymanski. 2010. “National Wellbeing and International Sports Events." Journal of Economic Psychology 31: 158-71.
** Robert Metcalfe (University of Oxford), Simon Burgess (University of Bristol) and Steven Proud (University of Bristol)