Kicking around the data: education systems in World Cup's final 16 countries

In case you’ve been living in a cave, the 2010 FIFA World Cup is well underway, and Ohio Gadfly is a proud fan. (Did you know US head coach Bob Bradley is an Ohio University alum and the school’s former head soccer coach?) As we head into the final games, futbol aficionados and proud nationalists of every creed will cram into pubs so crowded that maximum occupancy signs lose all meaning. There will be endless speculation and commentary ranging from the evolution of the official World Cup ball and making fun of our own American cluelessness about the sport to why Americans are so behind the times when it comes to world’s most infamous game.

What you might miss amid the noisy vuvuzelas and the excitement of 91st minute qualifying goals is commentary on the countries these players represent. Specifically, what are their education systems like? If Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, or Landon Donovan weren’t living their dreams playing for national teams, what might their lives be like given the schooling they received?

We took a look at the final 16 countries and tried to be impartial, unless the stat is as obvious as a handball in the box – for example, higher enrollment in school or gender parity in education are unequivocally positive. We’ll try our best to be good commentators; the only thing missing is a Scottish accent.

Take a look at World Cup finalists’ enrollment levels in pre-primary, primary, and secondary school, and tertiary education (higher education). Ghana is at the bottom of the pool with low enrollment, especially for secondary school (49 percent of boys and 45 percent of girls). The European countries have fairly high participation, though England’s 57 percent enrollment in higher education seems a bit low compared to other nations. Mexico has an interesting downward trend, with far more than expected pre-primary age children in school, but then enrollment drops steadily as students get older. The US, unsurprisingly, has the highest percentage enrolled in higher education, but has comparatively low enrollment in pre-primary. South Korea has the highest average school life expectancy (16.8 years) while Ghana has the lowest (9.7 years). 

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics (individual country profiles); dates in parentheses reflect older data.

*Gross enrollment ratio (GER) is the number of pupils enrolled in a given level of education regardless of age expressed, as a percentage of the population in the theoretical age group for that level of education (hence some numbers going above 100%). Net enrollment ratio (NER) is the number of pupils in the theoretical age group enrolled, expressed as a percentage of the same population.

**England’s data are generalized from United Kingdom data, the only data available from UNESCO.

***Chile and Germany have the most data missing, so that’s pretty lame. Automatic yellow cards for them.

Table 2 breaks down each nation’s public expenditure on education as a percentage of both GDP and overall government spending. Thanks to currency conversion calculators, it also looks at starting salaries for primary teachers in US dollars as well as the amount spent on salaries as a percentage of overall spending on primary and secondary. Notice that most countries have similar expenditures as percentages of their GDPs (hovering from four to six percent) except for Uruguay at 2.6 percent. As a percentage of overall government spending, Mexico spends a large proportion on education – one in four public dollars. Starting salaries for primary teachers don’t reflect the cost of living in various countries, so consider these figures with a grain of salt. Germany’s is high, especially compared to other European countries with potentially similar costs of living. In Ghana, less than three percent is spent on non-teacher expenditures, with 97.4 percent of education dollars going to teachers.


Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics (individual country profiles). Salary data from OECD’s “Education at a Glance 2006” (except for Chile’s: obtained from “Teachers’ Salary Structure and Incentives in Chile”). Dates in parentheses reflect older data. 

*England’s data are generalized from United Kingdom data, the only data available from UNESCO (except for starting teacher salary).

Table 3 looks at student-teacher ratios, literacy rates, and school calendars. Spain, Portugal, and Germany have low student-teacher ratios while Ghana, Chile, and Mexico have the highest. All nations except for Ghana have high rates of literacy among the total adult population, which is probably a reflection of an incredibly liberal definition of “literacy”—UNESCO says this is a “common definition – the ability to read and write at a specified age” – whatever that means. (We’d speculate that more than one percent of the US population is functionally illiterate.) Time spent in school varies widely across countries, and can even differ within countries; for example, Germany’s school calendar ranges anywhere from 188-208 days. Children in Ghana attend school for five days a week, nine months per year, but only attend for three hours a day. We’d also bet that various nations’ definition of “instructional hour” is loose (e.g., do Chilean children really go to school for 1,257 hours annually?)

Overall, Table 3 is informed by the widest variety of sources and reminds us of the international differences in terms of measuring instructional time, as well as the discrepancies in reporting and collecting data. In other words, the quality of some of this data differs about as much as international turf conditions, from Ghana’s dry soil to Germany’s lush green fields. 

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics (individual country profiles); dates in parentheses reflect older data. Literacy data found at CIA World Factbooks. School calendar data for OECD countries found at International Review of Curriculum and Assessment Frameworks Internet Archive found (; for Latin American countries: “A View Inside Primary Schools: A World Education Indicators cross-national study” by UNESCO (2008); for Ghana, from “Achieving Universal Primary Education in Ghana by 2015: A Reality or Dream?” by UNICEF’s Division of Policy and Planning (2007); for Mexico, from “OECD Briefing Note for Mexico;” for Slovakia, from “Learning for Tomorrow’s World” (PISA 2003); for US, Netherlands, Japan, and Portugal – hourly estimate obtained from Ed Sector Analysis, “On the Clock.”

*To standardize the hourly estimates, we took an average of hours per day (averaging across grade levels) and then multiplied by the given number of days per year. Many of these numbers reflect averages and may not match the Latin American countries, where hours reflect the “mean number of hours of instruction in all schools, public and private.” 

**England’s data are generalized from United Kingdom data, the only data available from UNESCO (except school calendar data).

Finally, UNESCO collects some interesting data on how print-rich nations are (as measured by the total average circulation of daily newspapers), as well as investments in science and technology (measured by the number of researchers in the population and expenditures on R&D). South Korea and Japan blow everyone out of the water with investments in R&D of 3.47 and 3.45 percent of GPD, respectively, while the US and Germany hold their own. Paraguay and Uruguay have a dearth of researchers, while Latin American countries overall have fewer newspapers than their counterparts.

table 4

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics (individual country profiles); dates in parentheses reflect older data.

*England’s data are generalized from United Kingdom data, the only data available from UNESCO.

While these statistics might not be as scintillating as a header off a curving corner kick, or a lofty goal from the thirty-yard line, they’re interesting in their own right. If Cristiano Ronaldo weren’t flying down the field with his Euro-mullet, what can we say about him? Hailing from Portugal, he’s 77 percent likely to have attended secondary school; would have averaged 15.5 years in schooling, and been in classes with just 11 other kids in primary school. Kaka (Brazil) would have averaged 200 days per year in school but attended for only 14 years; his likelihood to enroll in secondary school is the same as Ronaldo’s. Landon Donovan would have done slightly better by some measures – 88 percent likely to enroll in high school, averaging 15.9 years over the course of his school career. (We’ve mentioned nothing about academic performance or discrepancies within nations; young fans of Donovan’s LA Galaxy MLS team attending some of Los Angeles’ public schools could attest to that.)

All in all, while most nations tout a commitment to educating their youth, there are many children who remain underserved. As we head into final games, here’s to raising a glass and hoping for a day when the world’s citizens demonstrate the same fervor for educational excellence and equality as they do for the beautiful game

Stay tuned for more World Cup education analysis from Ohio Gadfly on Flypaper, Fordham’s blog, as well as video commentary by Gadfly Studios.

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