England’s Lionesses now have an unbeaten record heading into Tuesday’s World Cup semi-finals. Viewing figures are expected to be high, with their recent match against Cameroon breaking records with 6.9 million tuning in to watch England advance to the quarters. I was lucky enough to be at the match itself in Valenciennes, and (VAR controversies aside) the atmosphere was incredible.
This week the Trust took a look at the socioeconomic backgrounds of women’s footballers – and it’s some rare good news for one of the country’s top professions. Football is a social mobility success story, with most footballers – just like the population overall – attending state comprehensive schools.
That report, Elitist Britain 2019, looked at the educational backgrounds of those at the highest levels of a variety of professions across society, including footballers playing for England, Wales and Scotland. In fact, women’s international football had more comprehensively educated members of their ranks than any of the 37 professions we looked at. Only men’s football even came close.
To mark the teams’ ongoing run of success, we’ve also looked at England’s current squad of Lionesses, and the results are no different, with the squad made up almost entirely of players who went to comprehensives (94%), with the rest of the team educated outside of the UK (6%).
The report looks in more detail at a wider group of players, 94% of female players across the three nations attended a comprehensive school, just 2% attended an independent school, and 4% were educated abroad – with very little variation between the three nations. The men’s game was similar, with 89% attending comprehensives. While 7% of the secondary school population attend private schools, just 4% of England, Wales and Scotland’s men’s football teams did.
Image: The educational backgrounds of England, Wales and Scotland’s teams
But it’s not all good news, many other sports are much less accessible. Looking at other international women’s teams, we found that 13% of rugby union players and 35% of cricketers had attended an independent school. For men, these figures are even higher, with 37% of rugby internationals and 42% of cricketers having been to a fee-paying school.
So, what is it about football that makes it so open? Culture probably plays a big part. Football has traditionally been a working-class game, with strong roots in factory towns and cities in the north of England. And indeed, several of the Lionesses are from the North of England, including Jill Scott (from Sunderland), Carly Telford (Durham), Demi Stokes (South Shields) and Nikita Parris (Liverpool).
But these figures do not mean that female footballers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds don’t face significant challenges. This World Cup is the first fully professional women’s team England has ever had, and Scotland’s team in this year’s World Cup still had many part-time players. Players are forced either to work part-time on top of a heavy training schedule, or to struggle financially and rely heavily on family and friends, a potential barrier to access.
Interestingly, in men’s football, none of the international players had been to university, but for most female players, attending university is the norm, with 67% of this year’s World Cup squad having attended. This is likely to reflect the lack of financial rewards in the women’s game. Players need a back-up, and a source of income when they retire. But going to university does also provide an important safety net for female players who don’t make it big, a cushion which does not exist for the many aspiring players in the male game who don’t make it big.
Football is a fantastic example for other sports, to show that it is possible to have a team which looks like the nation itself. While financial barriers still remain in the women’s game, increasing the popularity of the game will mean more players will be able to play the game professionally, helping to break those barriers down.
Rebecca Montacute is Research Fellow at the Sutton Trust and author of the Elitist Britain report.