Anomalous Categories - the 2011 Census
Filling in the 2011 census last week made me wonder about the pitfalls that census data creates for future analytical work. I was struck in particular by how the census creates categories of anomalous persons from what are, in practice, quite mainstream social positionings. I’ve noticed one such case because it cuts across my mundane knowledge of British teenage life - others will doubtless have found other points in the form filling where they knew that their answers were no longer making much sense. I felt pulled along such a track as I tried to fill in the form on behalf of my 16 year old daughter. 16 is an important cut off point in the categorizations that the census produces. The census questions respond to a basic narrative line that if you are older than 16 you are no longer required to be in full time education. You could be working or looking for work. You could have completed your secondary education, and you should have completed your GCSEs. These assumptions are embedded in the questions about exam results. Here the first anomaly appears: there was no box to tick for those who had not yet taken any exams. We were required by law to fill in the form with reference to 29th March 2011. What this implied in practice was that all those born between September 1st 1994 and March 28th 1995 who are 16 and still very much at school - that is over 50% of year 11 students across the country - fell into an anomalous category.
This group was bound to file a return of no qualifications of any kind. They also had to answer questions about being in work or looking for work that did not appear to be connected back to the fact that they were still at school.There was a question that asked if you were a student, but it didn’t then direct you to an alternative track of questions to ascertain what kind of student (at what stage in your education) - or most importantly that connected being a student with working. You were asked if you had held a job in the past year - well yes - from my purely anecdotal observations the majority of year 11 pupils have jobs - jobs which are more or less demanding and which shape their social worlds in extremely important but very diverse ways. But the kinds of jobs that school students have were not investigated in the census, nor the number of hours worked in relation to number of hours studied, nor the use of the minimum wage in particular sectors of the economy, nor the extent to which such jobs are recreational as opposed to integral to household incomes. All of these questions seem to be extremely interesting in relation to this particular age-group and extremely important as we move into an era in which the majority of students in higher education are likely to be in work or looking for work. This census however left me with the sensation that the cohort of 16 year olds that I was thinking about had simply swelled the ranks of those deemed to have left school without any qualifications, and who while having had a job were somewhat indifferent to work or to seeking work. I began to leave whole sections blank when required to fill in details of previous job in relation to the notion of ‘main job’. I wonder if somebody will phone at a later date to gather the missing data, but suspect from my previous experience of surveys that it will not actually be possible for them to collect the data that I’d like to offer.