One of the supposed advantages of official statistics is that they are quick and easy to use to find out basic information.
To test this out, I use the following as a starter for my ‘official statistics’ lesson with my A-level sociology students:
I print the above off as a one paged hand-out and give students 10 minutes to find out the approximate answers to each of the questions.
If some students manage to find all of them in less than 10 minutes, they can reflect on the final question about validity. I wouldn’t expect all students to get to this, but all of them can benefit from it during class discussion after the task.
Official statistics stater: answers
Below are the answers to the questions (put here because of the need to keep updating them!)
It’s hard to make an arguement that the last two have poor validity – however, you can argue that these are invalid measurements of students’ ability, because of variations in difficulty of the exams and a range of other factors.
With the DV stats, there are several reasons why these cases may go under reported such as fear and shame on the part of the victims.
Marriages, there may be a few unrecorded forced marriages in the UK.
In terms of households, the validity is pretty high, as you just count the number of houses and flats, however, definitions of what counts as a household could lead to varying interepretations of the numbers.
The population stats are an interesting one – we have records of births, deaths and migration, but illegal immigration, well be it’s nature it’s difficult to measure!
The point of this starter and what comes next…
It’s kinaesthetic demonstration of the practical advantages of official statistics, and gives students a chance to think about validity for themselves.
Following the starter, we crack on with official statisics proper – considering in more depth the strengths and limitations of different types of official statistics, drawn from other parts of the A-level sociology specification.
A-level teaching resources
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Is life in the UK getting better or worse? In this post I evaluate this question by looking at a few official statistics.
Is life in the UK getting better or worse?
This post looks at a few economic and social indicators to see what they suggest about trends in desirable social goods such as economic growth, employment and happiness and less desirable social problems such as crime, mental ill-health and suicide.
The point of this posts is to showcase some of the official statistics we might use to judge the state of the nation. These are the kind of stats we can use to evaluate the Functionalist view that ‘everything in society is generally OK’, compared to other more critical perspectives such as Marxism, Feminism or even Postmodernism.
You should always be critical of the validity of statistics, especially since most of the stats below are official statistics – they are collected by government agencies…
A social or economic indicator might suggest life in the UK is generally getting better or worse, but this might not actually be the case when you scratch beneath the surface.
For example, an increase in recorded crime may not be because of an underlying increase, but rather because people are more aware of certain types of crime and more likely to report those crimes.
Similarly, a decrease in unemployment may just be because more people are fearful of claiming benefits, even though they need them, because of the increased hassle and stigma of claiming them.
Any statistics that use averages may also give us a misleading picture of the ‘health of the nation’. For example, average income can trend upwards, but this doesn’t tell us how that income is distributed – it may mean the top 1/10th getting a lot richer and the bottom 1/10th getting a lot poorer.
Averages can also hide wide variations in how social goods and harms are distributed by gender and ethnicity and age. The male suicide rate is around three times higher than the female suicide rate.
Employment is increasing, unemployment is declining
The employment rate is at a record high of 76.3%, while the unemployment rate has been declining for 6 years, and stands at a very low 3.8%
However, some types of crime have increased recently
Robbery and knife crime have increased recently, although there are very few cases of these types of crime compared to theft and fraud, and while the later has increased, the impact of fraud on victims is probably less harmful than for most other types of crime.
In 2018, the UK’s population reached 66.4 million people, with a growth rate of 0.6% and immigration being the main reason for population growth.
The population is increasing at roughly 350 000 people per year, just over 100 000 of these are due to ‘natural change’ (more births than deaths) while just over 200 000 are due to net migration (more people immigrating than emigrating.
Conclusion: Is life in the UK getting better or worse?
On balance I’d say that the official statistics above suggest that, on average, life in the UK is getting better:
Employment and poverty are both down.
Crime is generally down
Happiness is increasing and anxiety is stable
However, there has been a recent spike in the suicide rate and some types of violent crime are up.
It’s very difficult to say whether or not the increasing population is a positive or a negative: clearly the fact that this is driven mainly by immigration concerns a lot of people, but possibly we need migration to offset the increasing dependency ration associated with the aging population, so this might actually be a good sign!
Question: what other stats do you think should be included in the above?
The polls clearly show that most people think Boris will be a strong leader, and a different type of leader to previous PMs, but not in a good way: most people don’t trust Boris and think he’s going to make a terrible Prime Minister….
Most people think he’ll be a different type of leader…
But almost 60% of people don’t trust Boris
One of the more creative questions was what Hogwarts House Boris Johnson would be in – no surprise that 42% of the population put him in Slytherin – which values ambition and cunning.
We need to treat these results with caution: the negative responses may be because of the lack of say most people have had over Boris being elected, or about the lack of any kind of progress over Brexit.
In other words, people may not be expressing their dissatisfaction with Boris in particular, but possibly at the whole of the inept political class in general!
Having said that, I’m not going to dismiss criticism of Boris: he is an Eton educated millionaire who seems to be prepared to lie and spin his way to the top, always putting his own personal ambition ahead of anything else.
According to a recent poll (1) of 1000 people, one in five Britons have considered going vegan, which is 20% of the population.
But how many of these people have a genuine intention of going vegan? Possibly not that many…..
Firstly, if someone’s asking you questions about veganism, there is going to be a degree of social pressure to state that ‘you have thought about going vegan’…. so social desirability is going to come into play here!
Secondly, vague questioning doesn’t help… the ‘I’ve considered going vegan’ response covers everything from ‘I’m definitely going Vegan in January’ to ‘I thought about it once, but really I’ve got no serious intention of giving up meat’.
Finally, there’s the problem that 1/3rd of the general population seem confused as to what veganism entails…. 27% think vegans can’t eat fruit (God knows what they think a vegan diet consists of!), while 6% think it’s OK to eat fish if you’re a vegan.
Official Statistics are a quick and cheap means of accessing data relevant to an entire population in a country.
They are cheap for researchers to use because they are collected by governments, who often make them available online for free—for example, the UK Census.
Marxists might point out that the fact they are free enables marginalised groups to ‘keep a check on government’.
More generally, they are useful for making quick evaluations of government policy, to see if tax payers’ money is being spent effectively–
Official statistics are a very convenient way of making cross national comparisons without visiting other countries.
Most governments in the developed world today collect official statistics which are made available for free.
More and more governments collect data around the world, so there is more and more data available every year.
The United Nations Development Programme collects the same data in the same way, so it’s easy to assess the relationship between economic and social development in a global age.
Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of A level sociology papers 1 and 3.
74 pages of revision notes
15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
Just a look back at what some of the official statistics and opinion polls told us about life in Britain in 2017…selected so they’re relevant to families and households, education and crime and deviance…
The proportion of women aged 18 who started university in 2017 was nearly 1/3rd greater than men – 37.1% compared to 27.3%.
Family size is declining: about 45% of children today have no siblings.
The ageing population: the proportion of people aged 65 and over in work has almost doubled since 1992 – 5.5% to 10.4% – there are now nearly 1.2 million over 65s in work.
The downsides of immigration: Of the 8008 people registered homeless in London (2015-16) only 3271 were British, nearly 3000 were from central or eastern Europe and fully 1,546 were Romanian
Crime and racial injustice: Young black youths are nine times as likely to be in England and Wales.
Class inequality: there are 59 theaters in London’s private schools, but only 42 in the West End.
I had intended to make this an all bells and whistles posts, but time, much like the year, has just about run out!
A fifth of Crown Prosecution cases are alleged sex crimes or domestic abuse. In fact, the proportion compared to all prosecutions has nearly trebled in the last decade.
Alleged sex crimes and domestic abuse offences now account for nearly 20% of cases pursued by the Crown Prosecution Service compared to just under 8% a decade ago.
Prosecutions for sexual offences excluding rape reached a new peak of 13,490 in the latest financial year, while the number of rape prosecutions completed rose from 4,643 in 2015-16 to a record 5,190 in 2016-17.
It’s also worth noting that the successful prosecution rate has increased to around 75%
Why the proportionate rise in prosecutions?
There seems to be at least three main reasons:
Firstly, there’s more reporting of sexual and domestic violence – the rise of prosecutions are in line with a sharp jump in reports of sexual abuse to police seen in recent years in the wake of high-profile investigations launched after the Jimmy Savile scandal.
Secondly, authorities are also mounting increasing numbers of investigations involving the internet, including child sexual abuse, harassment and revenge pornography cases. For example the number of prosecutions sparked by alleged revenge porn – the disclosure of private sexual photographs or films without consent – more than doubled from 206 to 465 in the last year.
Thirdly, new laws have been introduced, criminalising a broader range of offences – for example a new law introduced to clamp down on domestic abusers whose conduct stops short of physical violence, such as those who control their victims through the internet and social media: there have been 309 alleged offences of controlling or coercive behaviour charged since the legislation was introduced at the end of 2015.
HOWEVER, there are some areas where prosecutors could do better:
There were year-on-year falls in prosecutions for “honour-based” violence and forced marriage, the report shows, while there were no prosecutions for female genital mutilation – it’s unlikely that there were no cases of the later in the last year in the UK.
Official Statistics on schools, teachers and educational achievement provided by the United Kingdom government provide an overview of the education system. They are useful for providing an ‘introduction to the state of education in the U.K’, before embarking on the core content of any sociology of education course and providing a basis for comparing the U.K. education system to the education systems of other countries, which would be relevant to the module on global development.
I will also provide a brief discussion of the validity and representativeness of the official statistics below, tying this into research methods.
I only deal with state-schools in this post, I’ll do a separate post in future on private, or independent schools in comparison to state schools.
The Government spent 83.4 billion on education in 2015-16, or 4.4% of GDP, a decrease from 5.3% in 2011-12
The above chart, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (link below), clearly shows you the extent of the Tory funding cuts to education since 2010.
There are 32, 142 schools in the U.K.
For an overview of the different types of school please see this post: different types of school in England and Wales (forthcoming post).
The majority of schools in England and Wales are state funded, and there are 5 times as many primary schools as secondary schools.
There are 21000 primary schools
There are 4100 secondary schools
This means primary schools are lot smaller in scale in that each of them has, on average, fewer pupils in them, and should be more ‘locally based for most parents; while secondary schools are a lot larger, will have many more pupils in them, have more of an ‘education factory’ feel to them and be more widely dispersed, meaning children will have to travel further to them.
There are 5.5 million pupils in primary schools in the U.K. and 3.8 million secondary school pupils (figures for state maintained schools)
The number of pupils in secondary schools decreased by 2.4% between 2011 and 2015
The number of pupils in primary schools increased by 8.3% between 2011 to 2015.
This probably reflects demographic trends in the United Kingdom (although by all means do verify this); if this is the case, it means we might reasonably expect to see an increase in secondary school numbers over the next few years.
There are 122 000 pupils in special schools, and 15 000 in pupil referral units
The numbers of pupils in both special schools and pupil referral units are increasing: between 2012 and 2016:
the number of students in special schools increased by 17,000, or 21%,
the number of students in pupil referral units increased by 2600, or 16.2%
A total of 14.4% of pupils have Special Education Needs
but only 2.8% of them have an SEN statement with a further 11.6% receiving SEN support, mostly within mainstream maintained schools.
Between 2010 to 2015 the number of pupils with special educational needs fell from 21% to 15%
NB – if you read this in conjunction with the previous chart, then it suggests that special educational needs students are becoming increasingly segregated into special schools and/ or pupil referral units, rather than being dealt with in mainstream secondary schools.
Another thing to note about the chart above is that it’s highly unlikely that the number of statemented SEN children are increasing while there’s been a fairly sharp decrease in non-statemented SEN kids, this has got ‘change in labelling’ written all over it as an explanation (no pun intended).
In 2015 the proportion of 16-18 year olds in education and work-based learning was 81.6%
This is he highest level since consistent records began in 1994
At age 16 the participation rate was 94.1%
At age 17 it was 87.8%.
At age 18 it was 63.8% (but of course, most of the ‘missing’ 36.2% will be in paid-work!)
NEETS – The number of 16-24 year-olds Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) across the UK has fallen to around 15%
There were 1.3 million students studying towards their first degree in 2015/16, an 8% increase since 2010/11
In 2015 there were 456 900 full time equivalent teachers in England and Wales
The overall number of teachers has increased over the last five years, but this increase is mainly in primary teachers. The number of secondary school teachers has actually decreased.
13% of qualified teachers drop out after just one year of teaching, and 30% drop out after five years of teaching
The current number of qualified teachers aged under 60 (and not in receipt of a pension from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme) that have worked in state funded schools in England and were not employed as at December 2013 is 227 100
How useful are these education statistics?
Such statistics are a useful starting point if we wish to make cross-national comparisons between the U.K. education system and the rest of the world, which would be useful for students of global development, given that education plays a key role in development. Indeed if we wish to compare the relationship between education and development in several countries, statistical rather than qualitative comparisons may be the only way of doing so.
From an arrogant, modernisation theory perspective, these statistics provide an indication of the level of investment required in terms of expenditure and teachers, and the types of outcome that less developed countries should be aiming for.
Most of the education statistics above count as ‘hard statistics’, i.e. there’s little room for disagreement over the ‘social facts’ which they show – for example, it’s hard to argue with the stats on ‘number of schools’ and ‘number of qualified teachers’.
However, others are much softer, and have more validity problems, and can be criticised for being social constructions rather than reflecting underlying reality: the statistics on special educational needs clearly come under this category – there is simply no way the underlying numbers of students with ‘SEN’ have decline from 21 to 15% in 5 years while the number of certificated SEN kids have increased – what’s really happened is that the number of kids which schools categorise as having Special Education Needs has decreased in the last 5 years, probably because the Tory’s cut previously existing funding for this category of student in 2010 (ish).
Links to statistics on education in the United Kingdom:
Most of the statistical sets below are updated yearly, or more frequently.
Education and Training Statistics for the U.K. – published by the department for education. In this source you’ll find data on the number of schools, teachers, and teacher-pupil ratios as well as basic educational achievement data by Free School Meals, gender and ethnicity. Published annually in November.
School Workforce in England – covers teacher numbers and pupil-teacher ratios in primary and secondary schools in England and Wales. Published annually every June.
Special Education Needs in England – details of children with special education needs, by type of need, and broken down by school type and gender (statistics derived from the ‘schools census’).
Official Statistics are numerical data collected by governments and their agencies. This post examines a ranges of official statistics collected by the United Kingdom government and evaluates their usefulness.
The aim of this post is to demonstrate one of the main strengths of official statistics – they give us a ‘snap shot’ of life in the U.K. and they enable us to easily identify trends over time.
Of course the validity and thus the usefulness of official statistics data varies enormously between different types of official statistic, and this post also looks at the relative strengths and limitations of these different types of official statistic: some of these statistics are ‘hard statistics’, they are objective, and there is little disagreement over how to measure what is being measured (the number of schools in the U.K. for example), whereas others are ‘softer statistics’ because there is more disagreement over the definitions of the concepts which are being measured (the number of pupils with Special Educational Needs, for example).
If you’re a student working through this, there are two aims accompanied with this post:
After you’ve read through this material, do the ‘U.K. official statistics validity ranking exercise’.
Please click on the images below to explore the data further using the relevant ONS data sets and analysis pages.
Ethnic Identity in the United Kingdom According the U.K. 2011 Census
U.K. Census 2011 data showed us that 86% of people in the United Kingdom identified themselves as ‘white’ in 2011.
How valid are these statistics?
To an extent, ethnic identity is an objective matter – for example, I was kind of ‘born white’ in that both my parents are/ were white, all of my grandparents were white, and all of my great-grandparents were white, so I can’t really claim I belong to any other ethnic group. However, although I ticked ‘white’ box when I did the U.K. Census, this personally means very little to me, whereas to others (probably the kind of people I wouldn’t get along with very well) their ‘whiteness’ is a very important part of their identity, so there’s a whole range of different subjective meanings that go along with whatever ethnic identity box people ticked. Census data tells us nothing about this.
Religion according to the U.K. 2011 Census
In the 2011 Census, 59% of people identified as ‘Christian’ in 2011, the second largest ‘religious group’ was ‘no religion’, which 25% of the U.K. population identified with.
Statistics on religious affiliation may also lack validity – are 59% of people really Christian? And if they really are, then what does this actually mean? Church attendance is significantly lower than 59% of the population, so the ‘Christian’ box covers everything from devout fundamentalists to people that are just covering their bases (‘I’d better tick yes, just in case there is a God, or gods?’)
The British Humanist Society present a nice summary of why statistics on religious belief may lack validity…basically based on the ‘harder’ statistics such as church attendance which show a much lower rate of committed religious practice.
The United Kingdom Employment Rate
The employment rate is the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 in work.
The lowest employment rate for people was 65.6% in 1983, during the economic downturn of the early 1980s. The employment rates for people, men and women have been generally increasing since early 2012.As of December 2016, the employment rate for all people was 74.6%, the highest since records began in 1971
Household Income Distribution in the United Kingdom
Household income statistics are broken down into the following three broad categories:
original income is income before government intervention (benefits)
gross income is income after benefits but before tax
disposable income is income after benefits and tax (income tax, National Insurance and council tax).
In the year ending 2016, after cash benefits were taken into account, the richest fifth had an average income that was roughly 6 times the poorest fifth (gross incomes of £87,600 per year compared with £14,800, respectively)
Reasons why household income data may lack validity
While measuring income does appear to be purely objective (you just add and minus the pounds), the income data above may lack validity because some people might not declare some of the income they are earning. Cash in hand work, for example, would not be included in the above statistics, and some money earned via the ‘gig economy’ might not be declared either – how many people actually pay tax on their YouTube revenue for example, or from the goods they sell on Ebay?
The United Kingdom Crime Rate
Below I discuss data from the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW), which is a victim-survey conducted by structured interview with 35 000 households. It seems pointless discussing the crime rate according to police recorded crime because it’s such an obviously invalid measurement of crime (and the police know it), simply because so many crimes go unreported and hence unrecorded by the police.
Latest figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) show there were an estimated 6.1 million incidents of crime experienced by adults aged 16 and over based on interviews in the survey year ending December 2016.
The green dot shows the figure if we include computer based crimes and online fraud, a new type of crime only recently introduced to the survey (so it wouldn’t be fair to make comparisons over time!) – if we include these the number of incidents of crime experienced jumps up to 11.5 million.
Reasons why even the CSEW might lack validity
Even though its almost certainly more valid than police recorded crime – there are still reasons why the CSEW may not report all crimes – domestic crimes may go under-reported because the perpetrator might be in close proximity to the victim during the survey (it’s a household survey), or people might mis-remember crimes, and there are certain crimes that the CSEW does not ask about – such as whether you’ve been a victim of Corporate Crime.
The U.K. Prison Population
The average prison population has increased from just over 17,400 in 1900 to just over 85,300 in 2016 (a five-fold increase). Since 2010, the average prison population has again remained relatively stable.
Prison Population Statistics – Probably have Good Validity?
I’ve included this as it’s hard to argue with the validity of prison population stats. Someone is either held in custody or they or not at the time of the population survey (which are done weekly!) – A good example of a truly ‘hard’ statistic! This does of course assume we have open and due process where the law and courts are concerned.
Of course you could argue for the sake of it that they lack validity – what about hidden prisoners, or people under false imprisonment? I’m sure in other countries (North Korea?) – their prison stats are totally invalid, if they keep any!
United Kingdom Population and Migration Data
Net migration to the U.K. stood at 248 000 in 2016, lower than the previous year, but still historically high compared to the 1980s-1990s.
There are a number of reasons why UK immigration statistics may lack validity
According to this migration statistics methodology document only about 1/30 people are screened (asked detailed questions about whether they are long term migrants or not), on entering the United Kingdom, and only a very small sample of people (around 4000) are subjected to the more detailed International Passenger Survey.
Then of course there is the issue of people who enter Britain legally but lie about their intentions to remain permanently, as well as people who are smuggled in. In short the above statistics are just based on the people the authorities know about, so while I’m one to go all ‘moral panic’ on the issue of immigration, there is sufficient reason to be sceptical about the validity of the official figures!
You might like to rank the following ‘official statistics’ in terms of validity – which of these statistics is closest to actual reality?
Immigration statistics – Net migration in 2016 was 248 000
Prison statistics – There are just over 85 000 people in prison
Crime statistics – There were around 6 million incidents of crime in 2016
The richest 20% of households had an average income of around £85 000 in 2016
Please click the pictures above to follow links to sources…
The United Kingdom Census is a survey of every person in the United Kingdom, carried out every 10 years, the last one being in March 2011. It asks a series of ‘basic’ questions about sex, ethnicity, religion and occupation. It is the only survey which is based on a ‘total sample’ of all U.K. households. You might also like this summary – What is a Census?
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