A long time ago I worked for a company specialising in researching the ‘hard to reach’, by which we meant the poor, the needy, including the elderly, drug users, asian Muslims, the white working class. Essentially, the kind of people that don’t respond to mail surveys as often as other groups. And in order to talk to these people we went to where they were: the street, bingo halls, community centres, drug treatment centres.
Which is why the headline ‘Church of England eyes £5m of state funds to combat extremism’ (Guardian) made me laugh. The CofE claims it can enable “Mr and Mrs Smith, Mr and Mrs Patel, and Mr and Mrs Hussain” to engage with each other through coffee mornings and so on.
First, they will use money so that vicars and imams can get to know each other. Fair enough, but there’s plenty of that going on already, and I don’t think vicars and imams are failing to get on (unless we’re thinking about the fundamentalists and crazies and they aren’t invited). But once this has happened, then what. In a working-class estate where I’ve worked recently, of around 7,000 residents only 50 or so have any regular involvement in the church. The vast majority of UK adults go to church less than once a year, probably for weddings and funerals (tearfund) and as I expected, it’s the middle classes (AB) and pensioners that are most likely to attend church.
Now forgive me if I’m wrong, but the government isn’t worried about middle-class pensioners starting riots. The kids that fight each other over their backgrounds won’t be reached through the church, and many won’t be reached through the mosque either. Contrary to stereotype, Muslim youth also ‘stop going’, rebel against their parents. If government wants to bring people together why not invest in the truly public sphere: make our parks more appealing, set up sports events, invest in council housing with genuine public spaces where neighbours can get to know each other.
Now I like small and beautiful as much as the next person, and would use a MacBook Air as a second PC for travelling, but the latest marketing message is just dumb. As the BBC put it, ‘The MacBook Air is 0.11 inches thick at its thinnest point’.
But the important info isn’t that of the thinnest point, but of the thickest point. A really thick laptop could have a thin wedge sticking out; even an equilateral triangular prism has a thinnest point approaching zero.
No, what matters is the thickest point. It’s the thickest point that determines whether it fits in a given laptop bag, goes through your letter box. If the laptop was 0.11 inches thick at the thickest point, then that would impress me.
In fact, that’s what drew me to the story. At first I thought it said simply that the laptop was 0.11 inches thick, and I assumed it was a misprint as it’s impossible. But hey, many people actually have reproduced the story as ‘MacBook Air now 0.11 in thick’, and have fallen for the spin completely: I take it they failed geometry at school.
We know many people are bad at maths. However, most mistakes are easily spotted through experience and common sense. But sometimes, common sense is lacking: here I’m talking about the Conservatives gaff on teenage pregnancy.
So first, the Conservatives. A few days ago they launched a document called Labour’s Two Nations, that was supposed to show how there is great inequality in Britain today (let’s ignore the fact that the rise in inequality happened in the 1980s). What they wanted to point out was that under-18 girls in the most deprived areas are three times more likely to become pregnant than in the least deprived areas (Guardian). It’s not clear what this means with regards to ‘most deprived’ and ‘areas’ – I think it’s top and bottom centiles and districts – and I’m sure I could find a more shocking figure if I chose a harsher definition of most and least deprived. The mistake they did make, though, was to divide 54 by 1000 and come up with 54% not 5.4%. That’s if they did a calculation: some social statistics come as ‘per 1000’ or ‘per 10,000’ and it’s important to notice this.
This matters for two reasons. First, because 54% v 18% is a big difference and much more significant than a difference between 5.4% and 1.8% (significant thought this is). Second, because anyone with any sense would realise that 54%, that is over half, is completely absurd. Anywhere with 54% of its teenagers pregnant would have babies everywhere. Either the writer and editor just missed this, or they genuinely believed that there could be such a place and they are massively out of touch with normal life.
News that caught my eye this week included the rise in fines levied on people who take their children out of school. In the UK, a school can fine parents £50 (rising to £100 if not paid in 28 days), if their children are absent without good reason. The spin on this story is that some people are taking their children on foreign holidays in term-time because it’s out of season and so cheaper, and these people are damaging their children’s education.
However, it’s important to note that there are a number of reasons why a family can take a child out of school and will get permission. These include religious observance, weddings and so on. These absences can, of course, damage a child’s education, but the assumption is that these days can’t be changed, whereas a holiday can. Here is the official guidance.
This privileges certain kinds of events (religious festivals, taking part in ‘approved’ sport, wedddings) over others. It’s difficult to see why the state or headteachers should be able to make a value judgement as to which is worthwhile. Should a child be given an authorised absence for a political conference or a protest march? Who decides which religions count? What about looking after family members? One can see the puritanical hand of government here – work and education good, leisure bad – and also the audit culture: some absences count against the school’s attendance record and some don’t and schools don’t want bad statistics.
And when it comes to justice, it also raises the question, ‘what is freedom?’. Yes, theoretically all parents could choose to take holidays out of term time. But many can’t afford to. Perhaps there is greater harm in a child never having a holiday away from home than missing some school days. If the government really want to ensure people don’t take their kids out in term time, then perhaps they should force holiday companies to alter their pricing, subsidise poor people’s holidays, or, as a simpler solution, increase the minimum wage and benefit rates /introduce a citizens’ wage.