• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Monday 22nd February, 2010

OK class, what is Tellus actually telling us?

Statisticians must get used to it, but to the pedestrian observer there is something dizzying about the transformation bits and pieces of information undergo on the winding journey between data collection point and newspaper report.Last week the UK media made downbeat reading out of the latest findings from the Tellus4 survey, which indicated that children and young people were "unhappier" and feeling "less supported by parents and friends" than they did even just a year ago.It has become almost routine in recent times to report on the unhappiness of British children compared to others in Western Europe. The current inequalities debate is built on the paradox that wealthy countries seem so readily to generate disappointed societies.As the Daily Telegraph explained, in the midst of bad news two years ago, the Government published a blueprint for improvement and with it a pledge to make the country "the best place in the world" for children to grow up in.So the revelation that among a sample of 254,000 children aged ten, 12 and 15, only 67% felt happy about life, 2% fewer than in the last Tellus survey return, was guaranteed to provoke Government comment.Children's Minister Dawn Primarolo put out a reminder that her department's reforms, the PHSE (Personal, Social, Health and Economics) curriculum and SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) initiatives were tackling the issue. The Tellus report portrays the additional two per cent of distress rather differently – suggesting less the result of a smooth data collecting exercise, than vacuum cleaning trials by a troublesome domestic robot.Tellus4, the latest model, was managed by the Department for Children, Schools and Families; Tellus3 was managed by Ofsted. Tellus4 took approximately 254,000 responses from 3,700 schools; Tellus3 149,000 from 3,113.The comparisons had to be adjusted, and Tellus4 results were duly weighted by a different more accurate calculation. Tellus 3 had to be retrospectively re-weighted to keep things in trim.The awkwardness of the calculations doesn't end there. Tellus3 was conducted in summer close to the main UK exam period. Schools pointed out that it might not be quite the best time, so Tellus4 collected data in autumn 2009 – with the result that a further judgment had to be made as to whether the sequence of indicators should be adjusted for age sensitivity.Some of the questions were changed to make them clearer, and, in the case of a bullying assessment, the alterations were considered significant enough to make the returns from Tellus3 and Tellus4 no longer comparable. The key indicator question that generated the emotional health and well-being return – which was picked up by the newspapers as a signal of continuing decline – had four elements. Young people were invited to answer True, Neither true nor not true, Not true or Don't know to:

  • I have one or more good friends
  • When I'm worried about something I can talk to my mum or dad
  • When I'm worried about something I can talk to my friends
  • When I'm worried about something I can talk to an adult other than my mum and dad.
The percentage of children experiencing good relationships was based on a calculation of the percentage who answered "true" to having one or more good friends and to at least two of the statements about being able to talk to their parents, friends or another adult.
    A child who has friends, and can talk to their parents and friends but not another adult will be classified as having good relationships; whereas a child who has friends, but reports that they can only talk to their friends when worried will not.
And, after weighting and further calculation, the lower percentage of children reported as having "good" emotional health and well-being was attributed to the drop in the number who felt that they could talk to an adult other than their parent."Children and young people are unhappier and feel less supported by their parents and friends than they did a year ago, according to the government's latest Tellus survey," Children and Young People Now reported.Who knows if that’s what they’re really telling us?

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