This week we’ve been thinking about what information we know about children and how this information comes about. Just this week we’ve heard how the number of children with SEN who are home-educated in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has risen by 57% in five years, whilst the percentage of disadvantaged two-year-olds accessing free early education varies from 39% to 96% across Local Authorities in England. These are just two examples that illustrate that a lot of our knowledge about children comes from research using numbers. Many people like studies that use this type of (quantitative) approach because they believe that they are more likely to provide an objective picture of what is happening. For instance, Ofcom, who are the communications regulator in the UK, published a quantitative study this week about children and parents’ media use. It provides us with the “fact” that 23% of 8-11 year olds have a social media profile, in comparison to 74% of 11-15 year olds.
But some people prefer studies that use a “research using words” (qualitative) approach, which are more likely to gather people’s views and opinions on a topic. Ofcom also published a qualitative study this week, which is called Children’s Media Lives. It identified that children think that using social media can offer a chance to develop their independence, help them find out different perspectives and give them a way to keep in touch with others. You might think it’s more beneficial to know why children are using social media, or you might think it’s more important to know how many are using it. Sometimes “research using words” is a better approach, whereas sometimes “research using numbers” better answers our research questions.
Yet there are dangers of assuming that numbers are always going to give us an objective viewpoint. Professor David Spiegelhalter says that “numbers are delicate things” that are often abused when people distort statistics in order to paint a particular picture. He gives nine ways in which politicians twist numbers and statistics to suit their argument – for instance by implicitly implying causation from correlation or by using either actual figures or proportions dependent on the point they are trying to make. He refers to the UK charity Full Fact, which aims to independently check facts and claims made by the media and by politicians. One of their recent fact checks examined the Guardian’s headline that “Childcare costs in England rise up to seven times faster than wages”. Full Fact suggest this this claim “is roughly the case for parents of children under two in London from 2008 to 2016… In England overall it is three to four times faster.” This shows us that we have to think critically about how conclusions are drawn from statistics and look carefully at exactly what they are telling us.
What do you think? What are the advantages of using these approaches? And in what ways might they be problematic? How would you choose to find out information about children’s lives? Let us know your comments and thoughts below.