the educational divide – do numbers matter?

If a news article is all about numbers, why is the media shy about providing the actual data?

On the BBC News website this morning James McIvor‘s article “Clash over ‘rich v poor’ university student numbers” describes differences between Scottish Government (SNP) and Scottish Labour in the wake of Professor Peter Scott appointment as commissioner for fair access to higher education in Scotland.

Scottish Labour claim that while access to university by the most deprived has increased, the educational divide is growing, with the most deprived increasing by 0.8% since 2014, but those in the least deprived (most well off) growing at nearly three times that figure.  In contrast, the Sottish Government claims that in 2006 those from the least deprived areas were 5.8 times more likely to enter university than those in the most deprived areas, whereas now the difference is only 3.9 times, a substantial decrease in educational inequality..

The article is all about numbers, but the two parties seem to be saying contradictory things, one saying inequality is increasing, one saying it is decreasing!

Surely enough to make the average reader give up on experts, just like Michael Gove!

Of course, if you can read through the confusing array of leasts and mosts, the difference seems to be that the two parties are taking different base years: 2014 vs 2006, and that both can be true: a long term improvement with decreasing inequality, but a short term increase in inequality since 2014.  The former is good news, but the latter may be bad news, a change in direction that needs addressing, or simply ‘noise’ as we are taking about small changes on big numbers.

I looked in vain for a link to the data, web sites or reports n which this was based, after all this is an article where the numbers are the story, but there are none.

After a bit of digging, I found that the data that both are using is from the UCAS Undergraduate 2016 End of Cycle Report (the numerical data for this figure and links to CSV files are below).

Figure from UCAS 2016 End of Cycle Report

Looking at these it is clear that the university participation rate for the least deprived quintile (Q5, blue line at top) has stayed around 40% with odd ups and downs over the last ten years, whereas the participation of the most deprived quintile has been gradually increasing, again with year-by-year wiggles.  That is the ratio between least and most deprived used to be about 40:7 and now about 40:10, less inequality as the SNP say.

For some reason 2014 was a dip year for the Q5.  There is no real sign of a change in the long-term trend, but if you take 2014 to 2016, the increase in Q5 is larger than the increase in Q1, just as Scottish Labour say.  However, any other year would not give this picture.

In this case it looks like Scottish Labour either cherry picked a year that made the story they wanted, or simply accidentally chose it.

The issue for me though, is not so much who was right or wrong, but why the BBC didn’t present this data to make it possible to make this judgement?

I can understand the argument that people do not like, or understand numbers at all, but where, as in this case, the story is all about the numbers, why not at least present the raw data and ideally discuss why there is an apparent contradiction!

 

Numerical from figure 57 of UCAS  2016 End of Cycle Report

2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Q1 7.21 7.58 7.09 7.95 8.47 8.14 8.91 9.52 10.10 9.72 10.90
Q2 13.20 12.80 13.20 14.30 15.70 14.40 14.80 15.90 16.10 17.40 18.00
Q3 21.10 20.60 20.70 21.30 23.60 21.10 22.10 22.50 22.30 24.00 24.10
Q4 29.40 29.10 30.20 30.70 31.50 29.10 29.70 29.20 28.70 30.30 31.10
Q5 42.00 39.80 41.40 42.80 41.70 40.80 41.20 40.90 39.70 41.10 42.30

UCAS provide the data in CSV form.  I converted this to the above tabular form and this is available in CSV or XLSX.

lies, damned lies and obesity

2016-07-15 11.02.43 - inews-obesityFacts are facts, but the facts you choose to tell change the story, and, in the case of perceptions of the ‘ideal body’, can fuel physical and mental health problems, with consequent costs to society and damage to individual lives.

Today’s i newspaper includes an article entitled “Overweight and obese men ‘have higher risk of premature death’“.  An online version of the same article “Obese men three times more likely to die early” appeared online yesterday on the iNews website.  A similar article “Obesity is three times as deadly for men than women” reporting the same Lancet article appeared in yesterday’s Telegraph.

The text describes how moderately obese men die up to three years earlier than those of ‘normal’ weight1; clearly a serious issue in the UK given growing levels of child obesity and the fact that the UK has the highest levels of obesity in Europe.  The i quotes professors from Oxford and the British Heart Foundation, and the Telegraph report says that the Lancet article’s authors suggest their results refute other recent research which found that being slightly heavier than ‘normal’ could be protective and extend lifespan.

The things in the reports are all true. However, to quote the Witness Oath of British courts, it is not sufficient to tell “the truth”, but also “the whole truth”.

The Telegraph article also helpfully includes a summary of the actual data in which the reports are based.

obesity-table

As the articles say, this does indeed show substantial risk for both men and women who are mildly obese (BMI>30) and extreme risk for those more severely obese (BMI>35). However, look to the left of the table and the column for those underweight (BMI<18.5).  The risks of being underweight exceed those of being mildly overweight, by a small amount for men and a substantial amount for women.

While obesity is major issue, so is the obsession with dieting and the ‘ideal figure’, often driven by dangerously skinny fashion models.  The resulting problems of unrealistic and unhealthy body image, especially for the young, have knock-on impacts on self-confidence and mental health. This may then lead to weight problems, paradoxically including obesity.

The original Lancet academic article is low key and balanced, but, if reported accurately, the comments of at least one of the (large number of) article co-authors less so.  However, the eventual news reports, from ‘serious’ papers at both ends of the political spectrum, while making good headlines, are not just misleading but potentially damaging to people’s lives.

 

  1. I’ve put ‘normal’ in scare quotes, as this is the term used in many medical charts and language, but means something closer to ‘medically recommended’, and is far from ‘normal’ on society today.[back]

Lies vs. facts: the 26k benefits ceiling

In the UK the government is proposing a ceiling on benefits of £26,000. This sounds a large figure, indeed it is the median income, so seems reasonable that someone out of work should not receive more than the average working person. The press is, of course, polarised on the issue, as is the Church of England.

I was particularly interested in the coverage in last Wednesday’s Daily Mail, partly as this was where the former Archbishop of Canterbury chose to issue a statement about the issue, and partly because I was on a BA flight and it is one of the free newspapers! This issue of the Mail contained an article, “The hard workers who are proud not to claim”1, detailing the circumstances of three different working and tax-paying households living below or close to the proposed £26,000 limit, who can’t understand why they are working and paying taxes to support others to live on more than them.

I wondered about the truth behind these stories.  As you might imagine, the Mail’s stories were, to be generous, disingenuous, and most probably misleading, both to their readers and those they interviewed. When you work out the actual figures and facts behind the stories, things turn out rather differently then they were projected.

The issue of the proposed £26,000 benefits ceiling was particularly hot in the news after the House of Lords made radical amendments to the bill. The opposition in the Lords to proposed benefits reforms comes not just from the Labour benches, but includes some LibDems and Conservatives, and, vocally, several Church of England bishops2.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, weighed into this debate chastising his fellow bishops in the Lords, on the grounds that the weight that the national debt lays on our children is a major moral issue and the runaway benefits bill is a crucial part of controlling this.

There are of course differing views on how fast and how radically we should be attempting to cut national debt and how this should be accomplished. What is notable is that Carey chose to make this statement in the Daily Mail. My guess is he chose the Mail, rather than, say, the Times or the Telegraph (let alone the Independent or Guardian, who might have published it alongside contrary views), is that the Mail is much more a paper for ordinary Middle England folk, the ‘squeezed middle’, who feel they are paying the bulk of the taxes that fund the burgeoning benefits budget.

Whilst the ‘quality’ newspapers push their own particular viewpoint, they do follow a certain journalistic ethic, and normally within their articles you find the full facts, as they know them. Now, this is sometimes very deeply buried, to the point of disinformation, but is at least present; the careful reader can see the counter arguments through the opinion.

The Mail has no such scruples; it is unashamedly a newspaper of persuasion not information.

Given this, however much the Mail is targeting a particular demographic, Carey’s choice seemed misguided or naive.

In particular, in the same copy as Carey’s statement, there was the article describing the three households, all in tight economic circumstances, but who are working, paying tax to fund benefits, but not on benefits themselves. This is, in fact, excellent journalism, cold figures are hard to comprehend, real examples can convey the truth better than abstractions.

One household was a single woman, Rachel, living on her own; the second, Lauren and David, an engaged couple with a baby living with one of their parents; and the third, Emma and Darren, a married couple with two small twins, living in a rented house. They all had net incomes below or close to the proposed £26,000 benefits cap, and in each case the description ends with a personal statement, which expresses their frustration that, while they manage to cope on their income, why should people need £26,000 when not in work:

I don’t understand why people would need to claim more than £26,000 in benefits if I can live comfortably on this“, Rachel

It’s crazy that people say they can’t live of £26,000. People need to make sacrifices like the rest of us have.“, Lauren

“It makes us very angry that my husband works so hard and pays tax on his income, which goes to pay the benefits bills of all those people who don’t work and who receive more money than us.“, Emma

What the Mail reporters clearly failed to tell any of these families is what they would be receiving on benefits if they were suddenly made redundant and out of work.

Just to see I put each of these people’s circumstances into the government benefits calculator and a housing benefit calculator3.

Rachel, lives alone with £16,000 gross income and £13,000 net income. She describes rent (£500) and bills taking up most of her income, but leaving her with £250 a month for “recreational and leisure activities“, allowing her to “live comfortably“. If she lost her job her benefits including housing benefit to contribute to rent would total £9,774 per annum (£53.45 job seekers allowance, £19.38 council tax rebate4, £115.30 housing benefit). That is just what she describes as her basic bills with none of her recreation or leisure. I’m sure if asked whether she would be happy to live on this, her answer would be different.

Lauren and David fare worst; they have a gross salary of £33,000, with a net income of £27,560 (including child benefit and child tax credits). If they were both to lose their job, they would take home a total of £200.61 a week, around £10,500 per annum5. It was Lauren who said, “People need to make sacrifices like the rest of us have“. If the Mail reporter had explained to her that she would have to cope on 2/5 of their current take-home money would she feel the same?

It is the last family however, that does appear to highlight anomalies in the benefits system. Darren works in public transport and has a gross pay of precisely £26,000, leaving Emma and Darren with a take home pay of £21,608 (including child benefit). If Darren lost his job (or found himself unable to work as he has a medical condition) and both of them registered as job seekers (although Emma is currently looking after the children at home) then they would receive a total of £24,295 a year (just over £15,000 of this is basic benefit, the rest council tax relief6 and housing benefit), more than their current take home pay.

The reason for this disparity is that Emma and Darren do not attempt to claim benefits: “We are proud that we’re not on benefits, although sometimes it can be really hard“. In fact they would be eligible for substantial housing benefits7, which would presumably make all the difference for them and their children.

The shame of being on welfare runs deep, and, assuming Emma and Darren are Mail readers, no doubt fanned by the constant stories of welfare scroungers and the ‘feckless’. They quite rightly want to instil an ethic of hard work into their children, but do not feel able to claim benefits, which they will have contributed to through tax and national insurance throughout their previous working lives, in order to help as they bring up those same children now.

Interestingly, they are happy to accept child benefit (and I assume child tax credit, although not explicitly mentioned), and when the children are of school age will not send them to a fee-paying school, but happy to send them to a state school, effectively an educational ‘benefit’ of around £16,000 a year, let alone insist on paying for hospital and doctors fees for delivery of the twins and subsequent medical care.

The difference is that these benefits, allowances, and services are universal, and so seen as ‘rights’ as a taxpayer, even if, as in the case of this family, you are a net beneficiary.

This very much strengthens the case for maintaining child benefit as a non-means tested benefit. In general, many benefits are not claimed, whether through pride, principles or ignorance. The one exception is child benefit, which is both universally accepted and well targeted8.

Maybe if appraised of the full facts each of the people interviewed by the Mail might still feel the same, particularly Emma and Darren. Maybe too Mail readers would feel the same if presented with the truth. But clearly the Mail does not trust its readers to make up their own minds if given the full facts, and sadly Lord Carey has leant his weight behind this deliberate disinformation; unintentionally, but very persuasively helping to mislead the public.

  1. “The hard workers who are proud not to claim”, Daily Mail, Wednesday, January 25, 2012, p. 7.[back]
  2. Whether they should be in the second house in the first place is another issue![back]
  3. I used the Tonbridge & Malling Bourough Council’s web site as this has an online housing benefit calculator.  While currently housing benefit is similar across the country, this may change in the future with government plans for ‘localising support‘, the potential impact of which has been under-reported.[back]
  4. For Rachel on a one bedroom flat I estimated a council tax bill of £1000.[back]
  5. This figure is particularly low as  they live with parents.  While the government makes strong statements about family values, there are equally strong disincentives to support close family.  If Lauren and David were out of work, but with friends rather than parents, they would be able to pay rent to contribute to household costs, which they could then claim against housing benefit.  Furthermore, if a grown-up child receives cash support from parents, it is regarded as income for the calculation of benefits.[back]
  6. For Emma and Darren I estimated an annual council tax bill of £1500.[back]
  7. Housing benefit is perhaps the greatest cause of anomalies in the systems. Even Boris Johnson was against a cap in housing benefit, as the proposed, albeit apparently high, limit would still make large areas of London (not just the fancy bits!) no go areas for anyone on an average wage including nurses, transport workers, etc.. The situation gets even more complicated with those with a mortgage, as mortgage interest is deemed a cost for benefits calculation when you are out of work, but not when you have a job.[back]
  8. More broadly there is a minority suggestion (I believe only the Green Party in the UK support this) to replace all tax allowances and basic benefits, with a universal wage or ‘basic income‘, effectively an amount for every adult and child, deemed high enough for basic survival (probably close to current basic benefit levels). Indeed the amount you gain through the personal tax allowance, the amount you can earn without paying tax, is very close to a single person’s job seekers allowance, so this is very nearly a ‘zero sum’ for tax payers without children.[back]