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Why a Winter World Cup could be the education reform of the decade

  • Blog
  • 24th Nov 2022

Throughout the 2022 FIFA World Cup, we’re publishing a series of blogs about the intersection of behavioural insights and football. This is the second in the series and explores how the timing of the world cup could have positive, and negative, impacts on educational outcomes

Boys scored worse than girls on exams in 2002, 2004, and 2006. But not 2008. Why?

Researchers at the University of Bristol point towards a surprising source for the upturn in 2008: Steve McClaren – who failed to lead England to compete in the 2008 European Championships (sorry Steve). It turns out that in years when a massive distraction in the form of watching three group-stage games back to back isn’t an option, boys (in general more prone to football fanaticism), do better on their exams. 

The impact of football

The impact of watching summer football matches on students’ lives is not small. It’s the equivalent of going from a high-performing teacher to an average one. 

No student who is thinking entirely rationally about their long-term future would sacrifice a few extra hours of revision to watch some games of football. But we know that, in the real world, people are far from perfectly rational and that ‘the environmental effects on behaviour are stronger than they might appear’. It’s a phenomenon that is also true for behavioural scientists. At least one BIT employee has left his exams early so that he wouldn’t miss the start of a World Cup match. 

Changing the time of exams

It certainly seems unfortunate that every couple of years, unless Steve McClaren helps out, pupils up and down England lose out on their grades in favour of watching the beautiful game. Perhaps the exam season should be moved to a less distracting time? That could actually prove to be one of the more impactful educational reforms of recent years. 

This year, a natural experiment will put this theory to the test. For a variety of reasons, the World Cup is taking place now – in winter – for the first time. Football-induced distractions are happening over November and December rather than during the run-up to the majority of exams in England. Based on Burgess’ and his team’s research, we think that the timing of this year’s tournament could lead to boys’ 2023 test results being better than those during summer football tournament years. 

This prediction is also informed by our EAST framework, which highlights the importance of the timing of an intervention. Distract boys in the winter, six months or so before their exams and it seems unlikely that we will see a similar impact to when that same distraction falls right before their exams. 

We’ve attempted to apply this timing principle to the design of our own interventions aimed at improving outcomes in education. Whether that’s texting parents information about their child’s attendance at the start of a new term, encouraging tutors to do a relationship-building activity with their tutees in their first session, or prompting children to watch an instructional maths video after they’ve just got a question wrong. 

We are currently recruiting schools to participate in our upcoming research projects. We have opportunities for primary and secondary schools to take part in one of our trials and help contribute to improving the quality of the evidence-base in education. If you are interested in finding out more, email lal.chadeesingh@bi.team.

Non-governmental organisations have raised various human rights issues related to this year’s World Cup. Human Rights Watch has created further reading on these issues and calls to action.

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