Sexual offending in schools: Looking beyond the Dramatic Big Number


Last month, Anthony Reuben came to the end of an experimental 18 month contract at the BBC. His job had been Head of Statistics, and included training and advising BBC reporters on how to understand and present numerical issues. The end of his tenure was commemorated with a nice little profile at the Online Journalism blog.

Many stories that reporters get, he notes, are ‘big number’ stories which appeared to be striking but require the journalist to scrutinise further to establish whether the numbers really were striking when placed in context.

It is rather a pity Reuben didn’t stay in post for just a few weeks longer, then we might have been spared the dog’s dinner of a story which featured prominently on most BBC news broadcasts yesterday.

The headline, duly replicated in most newspapers, is captured here. “School sex crime reports in UK top 5,500 in three years.” As the broadcasts filled out the details, it was described as “a national emergency.”

The story originated on the radio documentary slot 5Live Investigates. Their reporter submitted Freedom of Information requests to every police force in the UK. The data have not been published, but here is the full methodology and results as explained by reporter Claire Savage on the show.

“We asked every police force in the UK how many sex offences were reported on school premises over the last three years.

“[They included] a wide variety of crimes from voyeurism and exposure to mainly sexual assaults. In the last three years there have been more than five and a half thousand alleged sex offences reported as crimes and more than 600 of those were rapes.”

“Although the figures may include some historical allegations of abuse by adults, which are only now being reported, we know that more than a thousand offences reported to the police in the last three years were carried out by children on children, so called peer-on-peer abuse, but because not all police forces could give us the ages of perpetrators, the actual figures for peer-on-peer abuse may actually be higher.”

“Many involved sexual assaults on children under 13 by other kids and some of the victims and alleged perpetrators were as young as five.”

Now, lets attempt to understand what this Dramatic Big Number actually means. There are slightly under 25,000 schools in England and slightly over 5,000 more in the rest of the UK, so call it 30,000, accommodating around 10 million children at any given time. The BBC is telling us that over a three-year period there was one school-based sexual offence reported to police for every 5.5 schools. Another way to present that figure is that the average British school will have a sexual offence reported on its premises once every 16 or 17 years. Annually, one child in every 5,555 will be the victim of a sexual offence at school, reported to police (10m/1800).

But wait. The content of the 5Live documentary and accompanying news reports was strictly about peer-on-peer crimes, i.e. those committed by children. As the report itself makes clear, only a fifth of reports are known to be peer-on-peer, the others could be crimes committed by staff or other adults against children on school premises, either recently or at any historical point, and indeed (I would presume) sexual assaults committed against staff by other staff or pupils. (And yes, we know that there are probably more peer-on-peer crimes within the stats than this, but we are given no clue as to how many more there might be.) All we do know for sure from the statistics revealed by the BBC is that the average British school will be the location for a peer-on-peer sexual offence reported to police about once every 80 years and that one child in every 27,000 will report such an attack each year. This is the basis for all those news headlines declaring “a national emergency.”

Now, before anyone begins to howl me down as a rape apologist or denialist, this categorically does not demonstrate that sexual assaults and other sexual offences in schools are incredibly rare. It does demonstrate that the statistics generated by the BBC’s FOI requests are almost entirely meaningless and worthless.

Once you get past the silly numbers, the 5Live Investigates programme made a whole series of really important and entirely valid points. Dr Carlene Firmin, whose excellent work has graced this blog several times before, patiently explained that the vast majority of peer-on-peer sexual offences will never be reported to anyone, or at most be dealt with as a school disciplinary matter. A couple of brave young people, one boy and one girl, told their own stories, both of which suggested that sexual assaults on school premises may not be treated with the seriousness they demand. I was particularly struck by ‘Jamie’ describing how his head teacher had tried to dismiss the sexual assault on him by three other boys as “rugby locker-room banter.”

All the expert contributors to the show stressed the urgent necessity for full and frank SRE / PSHE lessons that not only cover issues of personal autonomy and consent, but also reflect the technological environment of sexting, online pornography and all those other 21st century concerns. All of which I wholeheartedly agree with and endorse, as I have written many a time before.

The depressing fact however, is that none of these points were carried from the body of the documentary to the rest of the media, all of whom entirely ignored the valuable qualitative evidence contained within and instead reported the Dramatic Big Number [DBN] as fact, without explanation or context. Inevitably, the DBN will now be dug up and regurgitated every time a journalist wants a quick and easy demonstration of our depraved, sex-crazed teenagers (and particularly teenage boys.) Indeed this has already started. In her broadly careful and thoughtful Guardian piece this morning, Zoe Williams has thrown in the new DBN uncritically.

Some might argue that since sexual offences in classrooms and corridors are undoubtedly a real issue which causes immense trauma and stress to (quite literally) untold numbers of young people, it doesn’t much matter that the DBN is actually a chimera, a mythical representation of reality rather than an actual fact. If it catches people’s attention and inspires them to take the issue seriously, then surely job done?

This is tempting logic, but ultimately harmful. This kind of practise is a classic ingredient for moral panics. (“Now that’s a scientific fact. There’s no real evidence for it, but it is a scientific fact”) More subtly, using this type of DBN as a proxy for actual evidence serves to disguise any real trends that might be happening. Within the narrative of these reports, unspoken but unmissable, is the assumption that these problems are getting worse all the time. While these figures are all wrought with complexity, the best data we have is that the numbers of cautions and convictions issued to young people for sexual offences have been consistently declining over many years, despite the host of new technological opportunities to get in trouble. The headlines invite not only fear and anxiety among parents and young people alike, but also demand that we ask ourselves what it is we have been doing wrong, when perhaps we should be asking ourselves what we have been doing right, in order to do more of it.

The bottom line is that no one is well-served by the generation and propagation of statistical mythology. Good public policy is driven by good information and good evidence. One issue the 5Live Investigates programme did bring to light is how inconsistent and unreliable schools can be in their policies and procedures to prevent and, where necessary, respond to sexual offences in schools. The best place to start there would be with proper research to provide responsible, reliable and meaningful evidence as to the nature and scale of the problem.

 

[Correction note, 9/9/15: As ever when I correct people on their sums, I made my own error. This post originally said that the police reports mean one report per school every 50 years. It’s actually about every 80 years (16.5 x 5, rounded off)

Comments

  1. sonofrojblake says

    It is worth saying that the BBC produce a Radio 4/World Service programme (and podcast) entitled “More Or Less”, whose entire remit is precisely this sort of questioning of statistics. It has been running since 2001. They regularly hold the BBC’s own journalists to account for statistical misunderstandings and manipulations of this sort.

  2. StilGjenganger says

    A couple of brave young people, one boy and one girl, told their own stories, both of which suggested that sexual assaults on school premises may not be treated with the seriousness they demand. I was particularly struck by ‘Jamie’ describing how his head teacher had tried to dismiss the sexual assault on him by three other boys as “rugby locker-room banter.”

    So, you are saying here that sexual assault between minors should treated much more seriously (and heavyhandedly) than it is. On the last thread you seemed to be saying that youngsters should be allowed to experiment with sexting (aka ‘producing and disseminating child pornography’ and ‘sexual harassment’) without triggering any major response by the system.

    Would you agree that you are being inconsistent here? Or at least that any measure to alleviate one problem will in practicemake the other one worse?

  3. Holms says

    #2
    My impression of the previous post was not that Ally was suggesting that students should ‘experiment with sexting’ and such, but rather that technology was making it possible and that education policies should adapt to this emerging behavior.

  4. Ally Fogg says

    So, you are saying here that sexual assault between minors should treated much more seriously (and heavyhandedly) than it is. On the last thread you seemed to be saying that youngsters should be allowed to experiment with sexting (aka ‘producing and disseminating child pornography’ and ‘sexual harassment’) without triggering any major response by the system.

    No. I’m saying all sexual offences should be treated with the seriousness they demand. Obviously not all sexual offences are comparable. Sexual assaults should normally be considered a pretty serious crime. Teenagers consensually sending each other naughty pictures normally should not be considered a crime as a general rule.

    There is no inconsistency there, is there?

    The examples given in the programme were of young people reporting crimes against them, in both cases (we were told) quite serious, distressing and traumatising offences, and the authorities in one case attempting to hush them up altogether, and in the other an apparently terrifying and serious assault resulting in a conviction but no punishment.

    At least on the face of it, they described situations where sexual assaults were not treated with the seriousness they deserved. That bears little if any similarity to the example from last week.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    Obviously not all sexual offences are comparable.

    Careful now Mr. Fogg. Very, very careful. You’re treading on extremely dangerous ground when you suggest there is the possibility of nuance, especially if you dare suggest that it’s “obvious”. Next thing you know you’ll be reaching for the word “mild”, and before you know it you’ll have passed through Dawkins and right out the other side into Goldberg, and then they’ll have to take your FtB card away. It would be a shame to see HetPat go the way of ButTERFlies&Wheels.

  6. David S says

    Well said Ally. The Dramatic Big Number (also sometimes called the Broad Base Fallacy) is one of the most common techniques that journalists use to mislead people about statistics, and it needs to be called out whenever you see it.

  7. 123454321 says

    “It does demonstrate that the statistics generated by the BBC’s FOI requests are almost entirely meaningless and worthless.”

    Not when the outcome translates to income and profitability. The BBC relish in the fact that they can glorify stats, however inconsequential, and spin them into a hard-hitting, attention-seeking story. I no longer believe a word the BBC says on such matters. The problem is that millions of other viewers do.

    It reminds me of the recent consideration to provide female only carriages. Looking at the ‘real’ stats behind the proposal reveals the reasoning to be shaky at best. But few jourailists are prepared to challenge – they’re scared, or they can’t be arsed, or they can’t do simple sums. Probably all of those.

  8. 123454321 says

    “and it needs to be called out whenever you see it.

    Yeah, agree, but it seems that the BBC (and media in general) answers to no one, especially as so few people seem willing to call them out. Even if they were willing, we’d probably never get to hear about it. The media is almost untouchable while these misleadings generate the necessary attention and income required to sustain themselves. And yet the media will jump all over any other organisation deliberately misleading the public via out of context misrepresentation. Pitiful.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    so few people seem willing to call them out. Even if they were willing, we’d probably never get to hear about it.

    This seems to suggest you have never listened to an episode of “More or Less”. Quite a lot of people get to hear about that, what with it being on BBC Radio Four and the World Service. And online. And podcasts. Obviously it’s only one show, or rather, six shows per series. Three series per year. A fixture of the Radio 4 schedule for 14 years so far. You really should give it a try. Here, have a link so you can listen right now if you like: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qshd/episodes/guide

  10. 123454321 says

    You’re right, sono. “Tim Harford investigates the numbers in the news.” appears to be the next instalment. Sounds interesting. I don’t listen to that particular programme very often. I’m wondering if the BBC learns and acts on the inputs/outputs from that particular programme? BUT, I’m assuming it has full jurisdiction over its chosen topics/content – self-regulated content is rarely fully inclusive and usually contains hidden agendas! My guess is that the BBC is free to ignore what it chooses to ignore. Ok, what I really meant to say is that people (a small percentage) do challenge, and a relatively small percentage get to hear those challenges via programmes like this. But after all said and done, it appears the BBC is still not held fully accountable, which is why we have out of context, skewed reporting and wide scale invisibility of certain issues.

  11. says

    If the goal of some parties involved is attention to their outlet via moral panic, or (incorrect) attention to a problem via (bad) expedient means, or a Dramatic Legislative Solution (which does nothing but provide “we are doing something” theatre and criminalisation of various minor stupid things), then maybe Mission Accomplished.

  12. says

    The best place to start there would be with proper research to provide responsible, reliable and meaningful evidence as to the nature and scale of the problem.

    I very much agree with this, but what you mention right before it can pose a problem. When each school has its own methodology of reporting offenses, different punishments, and even different institutional cultures, getting useful data from all of them can be a stark challenge indeed.

  13. Lucy says

    “The best place to start there would be with proper research to provide responsible, reliable and meaningful evidence as to the nature and scale of the problem.”

    Always the best place to start I find. I literally can’t do anything before I’ve researched it and got some meaningful statistics. Sometimes it takes me years to decide what to have for breakfast. But it’s worth it.

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  1. […] However, beyond the headline-grabbing numbers, perhaps the whole story isn’t being told. Ally Fogg takes a look in this eye-opening article here. Whether accurate or exaggerated, these statistics don’t entirely consist of the familiar […]

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