Football tournaments penalise GCSE students. Can’t we avoid this fixture clash? | Gavin Kelly

A study shows pupils massively underperform in years when there’s a World Cup or European Championship

It was the Hand of God that made me fail my religious education O-level – or at least that’s the line I tried on my Catholic parents.

As a football obsessive I had long known that the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 – with England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all playing – was going to clash with the O-level exam season. But I hadn’t really reckoned with how much stronger the lure of Gary Lineker and co would be when the alternative was RE revision. Given the footballing delights on display – whether Diego Maradona’s “goal of the century” or the drama of the Brazil v France penalty shootout – it was a one-sided contest for my attention.

Mexico 1986 didn’t just provide me with my first real taste of the intense footballing joy that comes before the inevitable heartbreak. It also served as an introduction to the ritual internal trial that would take place whenever a feast of football – World Cup or the Euros – clashed with exams. Back then, this just felt like a cruel coincidence, a random act decided by the wicked football gods. Over time, however, I’d hear more pupils and parents lament this biennial collision and wondered if it had to be like this.

Anyone who has ever revised for exams has struggled with the battle to retain focus. That task is made dramatically harder when attempted in the midst of international football tournaments – the ultimate monsters of distraction.

Fascinating new research from respected academics Robert Metcalfe, Simon Burgess and Steven Proud brings home quite how important this is. They compare GCSE results in the 2000s for all teenagers in England in tournament years compared to football-free ones. They find that pupils do significantly worse during tournament years: across all pupils the chances of achieving the key benchmark of five good GCSEs fell by 12%. Girls, as well as boys, do worse (though the latter are hit harder).

But this overall dip in results is dwarfed when the researchers zoom in on particular groups. The chances of white working-class boys – who already massively underperform other groups – reaching the bar of five good GCSEs fell by 28% during tournament years. Black Caribbean boys experienced a similar decline. Given the study covered years that predated the rise of mass social media, if anything it might understate the effect today.

These are huge effects and their consequences will last a lifetime. Securing five good GCSEs raises the likelihood of progressing with learning and gives a strong boost to future earnings. Debating the impact of football on exams may sound fun, but the findings are incredibly serious.

Step back and we can see that this study pinpoints the confluence of several national characteristics. Our obsession with football is hardly unique, but surely we have got it as bad as any country. And when it comes to putting our teenagers through high-stakes exams at 16, again, we are not alone but we are something of an outlier. When these two traits collide in June every second year another of our national features – rampant educational inequality – is made far worse.

It’s true, of course, that there will always be extraneous and disparate events to distract revising teenagers. Most of the time there will be little we can do. But the epic scale and total predictability of international football tournaments is different.

Say, for instance, we nudged forward the start of the school year by a week and squeezed a week between Easter and the commencement of the summer exam season so as to dodge the worst of the tests v football car-crash. This would doubtless cause some disruption for schools: all change comes with a cost. But we must compare this with the exceptionally high social and economic price of sticking with the status quo. Given that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will take place in the autumn, we have a one-off four-year window of opportunity (after the Euros next summer) to debate this and get it right.

Looking back, I was never going to pass my RE O-level. The die had been cast long before a ball was kicked in Mexico 86. But it’s now clear that every second year tens of thousands of young people – especially disadvantaged boys – do worse in their GCSEs than their peers who happen to be a year older or younger for no reason other than the arbitrary clash of tournaments and tests. Now that we know this, the question is whether we opt to do anything about it.

• Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Trust and chair of the Living Wage Commission


Gavin Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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