(Not) Eating for two: Fasting and educational attainment

Recent news regarding the possibility of moving the dates on which core GCSE exams are held forward so as to avoid Ramadan has highlighted the impact that fasting and nutrition can have on exam results and educational attainment.

The impact of fasting / poor nutrition during exam periods and/or while growing up has been subject to numerous studies before – see, for example, Anderson et al. and  Glewwe & Miguel.

However, what has received less attention (at least until now) is the impact of a mother’s fasting during pregnancy on a child’s educational attainment. That is why a paper by Douglas Almond, Bhashkar Mazumder, and Reyn van Ewijk in the latest issue of The Economic Journal is rather interesting – it looks at precisely this issue.

Specifically, the paper looks at the impact of Ramadan falling during pregnancy (i.e. the impact of fasting during the gestation period) on the educational attainment of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children (i.e. those children most likely to be of Muslim decent and, hence, whose mothers are most likely to have fasted during Ramadan) at age seven compared to that of other groups of children and finds that there is a small, but significant, decrease in educational attainment of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi children. The authors use this result to suggest that “brief prenatal investments may be more cost effective than traditional educational intervention in improving academic performance.

On the whole, the paper is a good one, following a clearly set out method, and the results provide useful policy indications. However, that is not to say that the paper does not have some flaws.

First, the paper uses the educational attainment of children of Caribbean decent as the “control group” against which the educational attainment of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children is tested. The authors justify this on the grounds that Caribbean families are unlikely to fast during Ramadan, such that the control group is unaffected by Ramadan. Although this might seem reasonable from a statistical perspective (although I’d argue that it still introduces unacceptable biases into the analysis), from a policy perspective it is less desirable.

Specifically, the relevant control group to determine whether a policy would be worthwhile is “the average student” – the authors do not provide any evidence to indicate that Caribbean students represent the average attainment in the UK. Indeed, the paper actually suggests that Caribbean students’ educational attainment tends to be below the UK average. In other words, the effect that the paper finds is likely to be understated relative to the average student, such that the paper’s conclusions could be much stronger if the average educational attainment was used. (Although the paper conducts a “robustness check” using White British students as an alternative control group, this still fails to get at the effect compared to the average student.)

Second, the paper assumes a “standard” gestation period of xx days, but does not investigate the extent to which changing the length of this gestation period affects the results. It could be that a slight change in the length of the gestation period assumed by the authors would affect the effect they find, which is important given that the effect they find is relatively small (albeit statistically significant). Hence, the rigour of the paper could have been improved by including this sensitivity check.

Third, the authors fail to make sufficient inference from the results presented in the paper. In particular, the paper’s results indicate that the impact of fasting on educational attainment differs according to the stage during the gestation period at which the fasting occurred – the impact of gestational fasting on educational attainment is largest when it happens during the third and fourth month of gestation and is almost negligible when it occurs after the seventh month. In other words, the paper could have highlighted the importance of early nutritional interventions for policy during gestation, but failed to do so.

Nonetheless, despite these flaws, the paper is an interesting one, with some important policy implications.

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