Inequality by numbers

Written by Colin Mair on 31 May 2016 in Comment

Colin Mair says using a child as a reference for public policy is likely to get political attention but we need to beware of oversimplification

The Kirsty infographic, with its challenging predictions about her likely life chances, gets across the hideousness of inequality in a succinct and literally graphic way.

The idea of using a child as a reference point for public policy is certainly more likely to get political attention than a more analytical account of the complexities of modelling the impact of deprivation on outcomes, but it does so at the risk of simplifying.

This suggests three points of concern: the ‘personalisation’ of averages, the focus on a snapshot rather than trends and the apparent lack of curiosity about why Kirsty is born into these circumstances in the first place.


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Firstly, the figures quoted in the infographic are not predictions for a person, they are averages for areas and SIMD deciles.

Averages blend good and bad outcomes, and while it is ethically proper to remain concerned with the bad, stigmatising areas and people can mean good outcomes go unrecognised.

Secondly, the figures give a snapshot and don’t tell us how we got there or show change over time.

For instance, we recently reviewed the trends in educational attainment over the decade 2003 to 2013 and the attainment of kids from the five per cent most deprived areas in Scotland in S4 was the fastest improving, and in that time deprivation moved from explaining 50 per cent of the variance in S4 results to explaining 30 per cent.

That is still horribly high but knowing the trend allows us to better assess the impact of new policies and practices. Snapshots make things seem fixed while trend data shows they are not.

Finally, all analysis shows a very powerful relationship between economic inequality and inequality in health, learning and safety.

We tend to take that for granted but we need to be much more curious about why poor households and areas exist in an affluent country like Scotland in the first place.

At minimum, we need to be aware that while we are rightly asking public services to strive to reduce inequality, that often happens against a background of  UK fiscal and welfare policy that does quite the opposite.

Of course, all of that is quite dull, and does not pack the punch of Kirsty’s infographic. So it is good that Holyrood is running with this and will stick with it over time.

It gives face to a defining issue for Scotland and one that should matter to us all. 

Colin Mair is chief executive of the Improvement Service

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