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Vital statistics

April is time for another national census. Jenny Houssart considers the opportunity for relevant classroom activities.

Why is a government statistician like a Spurs supporter? Because both get excited when the year ends in a "1". Spurs fans believe this brings victory for their team; statisticians know it brings a census.

For most primary children this will be their first census. They can work out how many national censuses adults of various ages have lived through. They can calculate how old they will be at the next census and those that follow.

Such questions lead to number work, but the major mathematical opportunity offered by the census is in handling data.

The principle of asking everyone a question and collating the answers should be familiar to primary children. Important issues are raised: what questions to ask; who wants to know the answers; how might they be used. As in the past, it also raises issues of privacy and confidentiality.

There are many questions in the actual census that teachers might hesitate to use in the classroom. However, some can be adapted for classroom use, such as questions about family size and types of transport used. Children might also like o ask their own questions as part of a class or school census on an appointed day. As with the national census, the data may be useful in planning future provision, so questions might cover lunch-time arrangements, playtime provision or social activities.

The census offers the opportunity to look back as well as forward. Old census returns become available after 100 years and can make fascinating reading. Questions based on these can help children to build up a picture of a community at the time and contrast it with the present day. For example they can ask questions about how long people lived and what jobs they had. They can also consider children of various ages, investigating whether they worked or went to school. Statisticians can tell us a lot about the composition of British society 100 years ago. Spurs supporters can go one better - they know who won the cup.

About the 2001 census:lCensus day is Sunday April 29;lPlanning started in 1993 and collated data should be available in 2006; lA workforce of about 70,000 will be involved and cost is estimated at pound;255 million; lQuestions asked will include housing, health and employment; lFor more information see

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