Britain in Numbers

24th June 2005 at 01:00
BRITAIN IN NUMBERS: the essential statistics. By Simon Briscoe. Politico's pound;14.99

Every hour this country produces enough solid waste to fill the Albert Hall. A survey of 688 children's packed lunches found just one salad.

Supermarkets distribute 17 million carrier bags a year, enough to cover Sussex and Surrey.

Simon Briscoe's survey of social and economic life takes us from health to death and wealth to begging, creating a thorough "did you know?" volume.

Britain in Numbers isn't just a digest of information; it also explores behind the figures. For example, 83 per cent of schools meet the standard for healthy meal provision. But hold on, that's only at the start of lunch hour. By the time the queue ends, choices have narrowed and the figure has fallen to 47 per cent. So that's why the children all want to be first in line.

Similarly, Briscoe acknowledges a rise in the number of teachers, but then pits this against the rise in pupil numbers, demonstrating that pupil to teacher ratios have actually risen. As with any statistics, a reader is prone to find facts dispensed that don't tally with the story we experience day by day. For example, in tackling classroom ratios, Briscoe does not take into account the increase in support staff. But his mission is to call for good quality, independent national statistics. He demonstrates how facts can be spun, so that while the Government can boast that 1 per cent of lessons in secondary schools are missed due to truancy, the same figure can be spun by the opposition as a staggering 150 million lost sessions.

When it comes to educational attainment Briscoe dismisses "crude ratings" as "taking no account of the particular features of local communities". He argues for the adaptation of our measurement culture to ensure we are comparing like with like, shifting our monitoring from "naming and shaming" to the questions necessary for improvement.

He also presents a relevant chapter on target-setting, listing the problems inherent in their imposition on public life, such as their skewing of service provision. When he quotes hospitals delaying and cancelling follow-up appointments in order to meet outpatient targets, I'm reminded of the average Year 6 child's experience. Targets are met, and people are failed.

Briscoe's own target - to burst some of the Government's bubbles and prove that there's more to the presentation of statistics than meets the eye - is evident. It's hardly surprising to detect this number cruncher's own hidden agenda. He lists, for example, every tax rise since 1997. (Looking at how they seemed to hammer cars and tobacco, year after year, I was left thinking "why not raise a few more?"). But the book does make a valid point that politicians use figures for "support rather than illumination".

With its 390,000 people claiming "Jedi" as a religion and the British and Irish consumption of double the amount of baked beans than any other nationality, this book is addictive and surprisingly readable, drawing the reader into an engaging tour of the nation's numbers and the stories behind them.

Huw Thomas is headteacher of St John's CE primary school, Sheffield

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