How well has data represented UK children and young people during COVID-19? It’s all about their visibility, vulnerability and voice

The Office for Statistics Regulation’s vision is that data should serve the public good. Its latest report assesses how well all of the UK’s young people have been supported by statistics during the pandemic

Isabel Ralphs

The UK statistics system has responded phenomenally to the data demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. Official statistics producers have been proactive and agile in producing data and statistics that have supported policy and enhanced understanding of how the virus’s impacts have differed across cultures, communities and generations.

As the UK’s independent statistics regulator, the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR)’s  vision is that statistics should always serve the public good. However, there is a lot to unpack within this seemingly simple phrase. What does the ‘public good’ actually mean when it comes to statistics? And how do we know it when we see it?

At the OSR, we believe statistics that serve the public good need to be trustworthy, high quality and valuable for those who use them. One might also expect statistics that serve the public good to take into account everyone in society, regardless of their background, circumstances – or age.

Evaluating statistical representation of young people: the 3Vs

The events of the past 18 months have affected all of us in different ways, and will continue to do so as we emerge from the pandemic. This may be especially true for children and young people who, while typically less impacted than other parts of society from a health point of view, have still seen their lives massively disrupted in ways that may take a long time to play out.

Understanding the full extent of these impacts is vital to tackling them. But how well have the available official statistics on children and young people during the pandemic helped us to do this? By answering this question, we can start to work out what improvements need to be made to the official statistics that are produced, to help guide a recovery that works for everyone.

The OSR’s recent report, Children and Young People: Statistics in the Pandemic, looked across a range of the official statistics that have been produced since March 2020 – from infection surveys and testing figures to data on school attendance and mental health.

To evaluate the representation of children and young people in these statistics, we have developed a new framework known as the ‘three Vs’ approach. This uses three distinct lenses to establish whether children and young people have been visible in statistics, if the most vulnerable have been separately identified, and if they have been given a voice.

Visibility

In order for statistics to serve the public good, it is vital that everyone is visible in all analyses that are relevant to them – and indeed, our review found that children and young people were broadly visible in key outputs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This included data on testing, infections and mental health, as well as some separate analysis of children and young people in specific educational settings.

In some cases, however, we found that small sample sizes inhibited the ability of data to be further broken down by age or other important demographic characteristics such as sex, ethnicity, economic disadvantage or LGBTQ status.

Vulnerability

The experiences of children and young people during COVID-19 have differed in many ways from those of their older counterparts – but also from each other. Treating them as one ‘blunt’ homogenous group masks a vast array of differences relating to their family situation, special educational needs, previous health conditions and more. Statistics that serve the public good should therefore seek to identify and separately analyse the experiences of the most vulnerable children.

Our report found that some efforts have been made to separately identify the most vulnerable children in data related to COVID-19, including statistics on school attendance and mental health. For a variety of reasons, however, identifying the most vulnerable children and young people in statistics is not always a straightforward process – and in some cases, these difficulties have resulted in a lack of detailed data on vulnerable groups. This may make it harder to understand the impact of changing events on these groups, and is a gap the OSR is continuing to explore as part of our ongoing work.

Voice

The third pillar of our ‘three Vs’ framework looks at whether children and young people are given a voice in statistics. This means allowing young people to speak for themselves, as opposed to using parents, guardians or teachers as a proxy for understanding their experiences.

In this regard, our report found a lack of evidence within official statistics of children and young people being given a voice. Instead, much of the data that has given children a voice during the pandemic has come from non-official sources, such as research conducted by charities or think tanks.

Many of these organisations have come up with creative ways to encourage young respondents to express themselves – for example, this research piece from the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, which encouraged younger children to draw pictures of how they were feeling, and this publication from the Children’s Parliament, which allowed children to pick from a five-point scale when answering questions about their happiness and wellbeing.

These sources form an important part of the overall evidence base on children and young people, providing vital additional insights in areas that would not be appropriate for official statistics to replicate. However, we also encourage official statistics producers to consider whether these data highlight any weaknesses in their own statistics that should be addressed.

So what next?

Building on our review of statistics during the pandemic, the OSR is now conducting a cross-cutting review into statistics and data on children and young people that goes beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. We want to understand how well these groups are currently represented in the UK statistics system, and use our voice as the statistics regulator to drive improvements where they are needed.

We will continue to work with both producers and users of statistics in this space, to support the needs of children and young people and achieve our vision of statistics serving the public good. There remains much more that could be done  – if you’d like to find out more about the OSR’s work or contribute your views, please get in touch here.

Isabel Ralphs is a Regulator at the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR)