4th May 2001 at 01:00
COUNTING HEADS: an introduction to the Census, Poor Law data and vital registration. By David A Gatley and Paul S Ell. Statistics for Education pound;35. Single user: pound;35 plus VAT plus pound;2 postage. Network site licence: pound;75 plus VAT plus pound;2 postage.

Census returns are the raw material of social history and there is tremendous benefit to be had from using them in the classroom, but their format can be off-putting even to the experienced researcher. This well-researched and meticulously presented CD-Rom package is based on an extensive database of 19th-century censuses, in a format which is as easy to use in Year 7 as at A-level.

With the idiot's guide thoughtfully provided, the data is easy to summon and explore, and on-screen icons allow you to convert tables into graphs or annotated maps. The whole of the United Kingdom is covered, so you can check the state of literacy or employment, or find out how many people were on parish relief in your particular area at any point in the century. In addition to the database, there are extensive extracts from 19th-century topographies, lists of workhouse unions, and ideas on how to use Census enumerators' books. The potential for social or local history work, whether as a whole-class exercise or an individual study, isenormous.

The supporting materials are strong. A lot of thought has gone into how the package can be used at key stage 3, GCSE or ASA2, and also about how it might fit into the English, Scottish or Irish school curricula (there is, necessarily, a lot of material relating to the Irish famine). Similar attention to differentiation is paid in the accompanying worksheets and student materials, with some good suggestions for questions and enquiries, though, no doubt, many teachers will come up with their own. This package should be snapped up for history, geography, mathematics, sociology and all types of cross-curricular work.

Most refreshingly of all, the authors put the data into context, and give useful advice about how to gauge its accuracy. Not everyone fills in the census accurately or honestly, many of the enumerators' books were lost or destroyed, and some 19th-century data - such as disability statistics - are so notoriously unreliable that the authors advise users to ignore them, at least for statistical purposes. A useful reminder of how statistics only reflect the fallible humans who supply them, as we all sit down to fill in our census details this year.

Sean Lang is head of history at Hills Road sixth form college, Cambridge

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