It’s not your fault (maybe)


Most of you who came through the UK school system will have taken GCSE’s at the end of your secondary school education. But did that occur in a year that was even or an odd number? If it was an even number, I have good news for you: a ready-made and statistically validated excuse as to why your results weren’t as good as they could have been.

A recent article in the Guardian pointed to academic research which compared patterns of GCSE results in years with either a World Cup or Euro tournament final – i.e. even-numbered years – with those of other years – i.e. odd-numbered years. They found, for example, that the chances of a student achieving 5 good GCSE grades is 12% lower for students in a tournament year compared with a non-tournament year. This is a big difference, and given the size of the study, strongly significant in statistical terms. In other words, it’s almost impossible that a difference of this magnitude could have occurred by chance if there were really no effect.

The implication of the research is that the World Cup and Euros, which take place at roughly the same time as GCSE final examinations, have a distracting effect on students, leading to poorer results. Now, to be clear: the analysis cannot prove this claim. The fact that there is a 2-year cycle in quality of results is beyond doubt. But this could be due to any cause which has a 2-year cycle that coincides with GCSE finals (and major football finals). But, what could that possibly be?

Moreover, here’s another thing: the difference in performance in tournament and non-tournament years varies among types of students, and is greatest for the types of students that you’d guess are most likely to be distracted by football.

  1. The effect is greater for boys than for girls, though it is also present and significant for girls.
  2. The difference in performance (of achieving five or more good GCSE grades) reaches 28% for white working class boys.
  3. The difference for black boys with a Caribbean background is similarly around 28%.

So, although it requires a leap of faith to assume that the tournament effect is causal rather than coincidental so far as GCSE performance goes, the strength of circumstantial evidence is such that it’s a very small leap of faith in this particular case.


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