Monday 25 April 2016

Lies, damn lies and statistics

Lies, damn lies and statistics…

If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” (Merchant of Venice)

It has long been recognised that statistics are merely numbers, neutral collections of data accumulated to offer an indication of specific trends or events. It is what is done with statistics, and as importantly, how statistics are presented that make them important.

Take me. Statistics would probably identify me as a male, aged over 65 years, a graduate with a distinguished professional career. I was happily married for over 40 years and have children and grandchildren. Statistics might classify me as ‘middle class’, and indicate that I had never been involved in drugs, alcohol abuse, crime, unemployment, and so on. (I have been homeless, but let’s put that to one side for now.) My data would identify me as boringly normal and of no particular interest and the statistician and data gatherer would quickly skip over me looking for more interesting people to study. I have four older brothers who also have long stable marriages, large loving families and successful careers. Boring!

Like my four brothers, I am also a care leaver. To me, this is just another piece of data, much like being male, over 65 years old, etc. I look forward to the day when it does not elicit interest and can be followed by the phrase ‘So what?’, but we are not there yet.

Politicians, policy makers and people involved in campaigns for policy change (like me) use statistics about care leavers to make their case.  That is because they provide evidence and give a clear indication of the situation that care leavers find themselves in, or some even suggest how care leavers think, react or achieve in certain situations. But do they?

Let’s look at care leavers who go on to study at university from care. Statistics show that about 6% of care leavers go on to study at university. When I went to university, the figure was only about 1%. Clearly, 90% + of care leavers do NOT go on to university. Statistics show about 37% of young people who are not from care go on to university. Clearly then, this must indicate that care leavers are not as bright as other children? Of course not. It indicates an issue for many young people from care being unable to enjoy and access education and higher education compared to other children. It is not the statistic – it is how it is presented and interpreted.

Let’s look at a few more. In a recent article, a young person from care cited the following statistics

“Fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care, but looked after children make up 33% of boys and 61% of girls in custody.”

“In 2011 just 13.2% of children who had been in care for at least six months left school with five GCSEs grades A*-C including English and mathematics, or the equivalent alternative qualification, compared with 57.9% of all children.”

34% of care leavers were not in education, employment or training at age 19 compared to 15.5% of the general population”

The author continues:

“Perhaps even worse is that these statements neglect to highlight the positive side of every statistic. They do not celebrate the 13.2% that did achieve 5 GCSEs at A*-C standard. Or the amount of children in care that have never been in custody. Or the people that are not NEET”.

This is an absolutely valid point to make.  It is clear that statistics are sometimes presented bluntly and insensitively, and clearly this young person feels strongly that the statistics add to the ignorance of the public about young people from care and potentially fuel discrimination and stigma. This can further demoralise young people from care who may already be struggling with their care identity.

I accept that, but take the view that it is the presentation of the statistic, not the statistic, that fuels that ignorance. If fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care, but looked after children make up 33% of boys and 61% of girls in custody, the question is WHY? Are young people from care more criminally inclined than other children. Of course not. As the article author points out, most of us do not graduate from care to crime. Are children from care less academically able than their peers? Of course not! I left school with no qualifications. But I am now highly professionally qualified, and have graduated from two universities including gaining first class honours on my last venture into higher education – but I am still me.

If 34% of care leavers are not in education, employment or training at age 19 compared to 15.5% of the general population, this tells me that over twice as many care leavers as other young people are not getting the opportunity to engage in Society and develop their skills and aptitudes. These young people are not getting the opportunity to meet their dreams. The question must be WHY, and how can we correct this?

If statistics reveal a difference in achievement between care leavers and other young people that difference must be the focus, not the statistic itself in isolation.  If we look closely at why the statistics show such significant differences, we see layers of disadvantage and inequality of opportunity faced by care leavers compared to other young people, much if not most of it resulting from the way care and support is provided to these young people and societal attitudes – not any inadequacy on the part of the young people from care themselves. As a care leaver, that offends me and is unacceptable and I have spent decades challenging the inequalities young people from care and care leavers face. I will and do use statistic to make my case, but never as a stick to hit care leavers with.

Statistics do not cause stigma - the misuse and misinterpretation of statistics does that.  After many years as a senior manager in social work, I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people say that people who are abused as children grow up to be abusers. Believe me – we don’t, and that misuse of data from research is insulting and offensive. Only the other day, one commentator referred quite blithely to children in care as ‘damaged’. Really? It is from such language that attitudes form, and from the attitudes comes the stigma. This is an area that needs closer attention

I always say that I ‘graduated’ from care, I did not ‘survive’ it. Language is important and there remains much careless language used about young people from care and care leavers, much of it within social work itself.

Most care leavers are boring like me. We haven’t been to prison or in trouble with the police, we don’t spend our lives deliberately living on benefits, we are not alcohol or drug dependent, and indeed many of us are actually very successful in our chosen professions. The statistics show that only a minority of care leavers fall into those unfortunate categories.  We care leavers are just ordinary people. Indeed, many of us are extraordinary people and I have had the privilege in my life to know and work with some supremely talented and inspiring care leavers. Care leavers are successful in all professions and the arts, many making leading contributions in their fields in spite of the extra pressures presented by disadvantaged backgrounds.  Coal is a form of carbon. However, as one care leaver said, put carbon under intense pressure and it can transform into a diamond. For so many care leavers, the pressures of their childhoods has transformed them into diamonds.

When I described myself as a middle class male aged over 65 years, I might easily have inserted care leaver in that description, and sometimes I do.  It is a descriptive term and carries no stigma or shame. I am a ‘graduate’ of the care system, a ‘diamond’ formed by the pressures I faced as I grew up.  I am proud of myself and who I am.  I think every other graduate from the care system should be proud of themselves as well.