Can Sport improve Leaving Cert. results?

March 8th, 2013
by Eamonn Fitzgerald

Participation in extra-curricular sport while studying for the Leaving Cert (LC) examinations can benefit academic achievement, according to a research article published in the Journal of School Health, American School Health Association,  January 2013. School Sport and Academic Achievement, a research article by John Bradley, PhD, Frances Keane, M.Ed., and Susan Crawford, PhD, from UCC, does provide a very timely topic for this the 40th anniversary publication of The Killarney Advertiser and specifically for 'On the Ball'.

It brings together by association two areas of particular interest to this writer. So many times I have been asked over the  past 40 years, usually by parents of students studying for their Leaving Cert. Examinations, for direction on a very pertinent question in so many households. In Leaving Cert year should their sons and daughters give up playing their favourite sport for that final year in school and concentrate on their studies? Parents felt that more time available for study would seem to increase their offsprings' opportunities of achieving higher points, thus opening up more avenues of choice in 3rd level courses. Less often the requests come directly from the students.

It was never a case of one size fits all advice. The advice in response to this seemingly straightforward legitimate query has so many variables to be considered. The only research I relied on up to now came from the UK, Canada, and USA. Hence, the welcome publication of the Bradley, Keane, and Crawford study from UCC, to my knowledge the first Irish research published in this area of study.
The authors analysed the Leaving Cert. results supplied by the Irish  State Examinations Commission( SEC),the body entrusted to run the examinations system For the Irish post-primary sector)  "from  402 students  (age 17-18 years) graduating from an all-boys secondary school between 2008 and 2011".

The data from the 4 year period was analysed and collated under 4 categories. Those students who did not engage in sport were by far the largest group averaging 43% over the 4 year period, followed by rugby, soccer and rowing. The average CAO points return for the whole LC cohort in the school was 420.5.This was the base line for comparison. The key finding of this study was that the students who participated in sport in their LC year scored 25.4 points on average higher than the school average of 420.5." From students participating in a sport, 58.3% of them exceeded the school average LC score."

Breaking that down further the study revealed the average points achieved by sports' participants were as follows, Rowing ,(505.7 points,), Rugby ( 432.3 points) , Soccer ( 391.3). Participants of the sport of soccer actually scored below the whole school average, but the returns from the other sports were so high that the overall result  revealed that sports participants achieved 25.4 points in excess of the school average.

Be careful
Readers of this sports column should not jump to immediate conclusions aligning their thinking too closely with some of the results from the above study.

One cannot generalise from such a narrow base and the authors state this in the research paper. This study is based on just one secondary school in Ireland, "but further research is needed to see if they are consistent in other schools and other areas". They also add, "Further investigation is needed across a range of schools incorporating a range of individual and team sports to support the claims of the current study that the personality characteristics of participants in individual sports can positively influence academic achievement."

To which I add ,that there are so many other variables to be taken in to account, which may well be at variance  somewhat with the results. The socio-economic background of students, level of  parental  support, use of grinds, individual student 1.Q.,student's own motivation, the quality of learning and teaching in the schools, types of schools, private fee paying , public sector schools, voluntary sector, all girls schools and mixed schools need to be factored in to one's evaluation.

On the Ball readers
The majority of the readers of this sports column come from Killarney town and hinterlands stretching out to the East Kerry and Mid Kerry areas.Sport on offer in the school for this study offered extra-curricular team sports in rugby and soccer, and rowing as an individual sport. The local scene here is quite different. GAA and specifically football Gaelic football ,is by far the most popular sport of participation for students of both genders in this area. That covers provision by schools and by local clubs. There are a whole host of other team sports with LC participants such as soccer, basketball, soccer, badminton, camóige et al., Then there  are sports ,which for the benefit of comparison ,can be termed individual sports for the most part, though at times they can be termed team sports. These include among others, rowing, golf, pitch& putt, athletics, horse riding and judo.Rowing is Killarney's oldest sport with documented evidence from T.F.Hall's ,History of Rowing in Killarney, showing that the first regatta was held in 1830.That was 56 years before Dr Crokes GAA club was founded. The improved LC results achieved by the students who participated in rowing in this study are spectacular and one can surmise that LC students ,who participate in rowing in the Killarney area, and to a very high level, indeed as the national sports results show, will do very well in their exams. However, I do suggest some caveats. It is not prudent to generalise from such a small cohort of students (4) from the research school, where the only individual sport offered sport was rowing. It is not rowing per se that is at issue here. Could participants of golf pitch&putt, swimming, horse riding, and a myriad of other individual sports not also enhance their results in the LC? Neither should one generalise from the results of those students who participated in soccer.
I have been in contact with Dr Bradley on a few occasions since reading this interesting study, to seek clarification on some of the findings and conclusions ; the UCC lecturer was most helpful and forthcoming in his responses.

I put it to him that if there was a much broader mix of schools, with students from different socio-economic backgrounds, the results of the research might be quite different. His response was, "I kept the discussion and the analysis of the findings focussed on School Sport to limit the impact from other factors. This would exclude someone who was highly active in a sport outside of school, but not active within school, but this was felt to be a small minority of subjects, if any. The improvements in LC scores from those involved in sport participation (specifically on a school team) were attributed to greater conscientiousness, levels of organisation and a systematic approach to learning and school work alongside their sporting activities. I then think these findings can be applied to a broader mix of students and schools, as it is something a school can influence by organising more school team activities and related training and practice. As this will normally include training/practice on several days each week it will confer significant demands on those involved, strengthening the characteristics that are suggested to confer"

Other variables
Add in such key variable as single sex schools, mixed gender schools,  academic ability of students and these would most  likely reveal different findings , I added. His response was that, "As long as the school supported each group and created opportunities for all groups concerned I do not think the broad findings would differ". Anecdotal evidence over 40 years would suggest otherwise for me. We differ on that one. This is an opportune time for one of our sports readers to tease out these differing perceptions in a third level post graduate thesis.A further question for John Bradley .Is the cohort of students not participating in sport/extra-curricular activities, as high in the national context, as you found in this school? "Good question - I do not have an answer to this. I have had further discussions with the school and they are looking at this aspect also."

Elite sports people studying for LC
Readers of this column will be well aware of my reservations about the level of participation by elite sports students in their chosen sport  in their LC year and how to marry that commitment demanded by their sports managers to achieve sporting success and the huge study workload on these same students, usually aged 17-18. I have consistently stated in this column that I feel the commitment of training/games 5 times a week is too much for the student to maximise CAO points. This is what is demanded by ( among others) the  Kerry minor football managers, further accentuated by the club managers of the same players. Same goes for young talented sports stars, who are also studying for the LC. and may be on highly demanding development squads in rugby, soccer, basketball, swimming et al.

Students with aspirations for very high points on the CAO system (circa 540 +) may have to opt out of time spent in active sport/training in LC year. Furthermore, my contention is that students in third level colleges on certain course of study with a very high work load of lectures, study, and practical elements are unable to give the total commitment demanded at senior inter-county level sports. Much as they would like to don their county colours they may have to opt out. That's an unproven thesis at this stage, worthy of proper research as there are so many other variables to be taken in to account in this issue. Another study for some eager student searching for a topic for a Masters' thesis. These are personal opinions based on 40 years of anecdotal evidence. Over to Dr Bradley for his take on the above.

"There is a lot of evidence to show that one of the key factors in a successful student, particularly those that combine studies with sporting success is the parents and the availability of facilities/amenities close to where they live. There is a lot of luck involved in being in the correct location, with the correct club/coach, with available parents to help with transport etc. However this "luck" can be created to some extent."

He refers to a book called "Bounce" by Matthew Syed, who argues that success is down to a combination of opportunity, being in the right place at the right time and hard work, rather than innate talent Apart from team sports Syed suggests, "that participating in individual sports confers a further benefit to academic results because of the enhanced positive personality characteristics of conscientiousness and autonomy associated with these sports." Matthew is three-times Commonwealth Gold table tennis champion and a Times columnist.

Dr Bradley continues", from my experience, if an individual is organised and committed they can combine all aspects. With the large emphasis on the LC and the leaving cert years, the option to drop sport can be seen as a convenient way to devote more time to study but we have (again anecdotal) evidence to suggest that if sport is dropped, the structure to the daily life can go and a student ends up devoting less time to their studies compared to when they were participating in sport. There is evidence from the Chinese Sporting System that students can combine both if an initiative is there to allow this to be possible. However there are situations when all the focus is on sport and the academic life suffers. Again, back to luck, as mentioned above to some extent. "

'Can' and not 'does'
On a broader scale this very interesting study emanating from UCC refers to the implications for school health. "Encouraging participation in school sport can help promote academic achievement as well as providing an opportunity to achieve health-promoting physical activity." Significantly , the authors use the word 'can' and not 'does' These wise academics make no such claims. The leap from 'can' to 'does' is a giant one and needs far more research. What they have done is to provide an opportunity for students, parents and educators to engage in debate and hopefully provide an excellent topic for some student studying for a Masters.

Back to the start and the common parental question above, posed to this writer for the past 4 decades. Nothing conclusive, yet! , but never forget that a crucial variable is central to the pursuit of success and achievement in the sporting and academic worlds, entwined in this article.

Nóta breise; the name of the school is not identified for ethical reasons. Researchers and this writer included respect this justifiable anonymity.

Bradford and Crawford
Bradley and Crawford are lecturers in UCC.  Bradley represented Great Britain as a Senior International swimmer, at numerous events including World University Games. Currently he is a Technical Member of the Irish Institute of Sport, providing support for talented Irish athletes to ensure high performance and athletic achievement at the highest level. Crawford has two books to her credit and has particular interest in the area of reflective practice in Higher Education and Special Needs Education. 

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