Big Data and Social Science

This was a training course organised by the NCRM (National Centre for Research Methods).   Held at the LSE in Holborn, and facilitated by Frauke Kreuter, two days were dedicated to considering the ways in which social scientists could engage with Big Data.  The content of the two days is supported by a book Big Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools.  It was a shame I could only find a hard copy at the time of purchase as it really is a weighty tome, and not something one wants to carry around.

What is Big Data?

This is a good question.  One response to this, that Big Data is “anything that is too big to fit onto your computer” (Foster et al, 2017: p3) reveals the temporality of this as a defining characteristic.  As the computing capacity of personal computing increases, so does the ability to handle vast amounts of data using a personal computer or laptop. So, this may not be a good yardstick for defining Big Data.  Still, this gives us an indication of the ‘Bigness’ of Big Data.  There are three key characteristics of Big Data, including volume (large datasets), velocity (data that may be in real time, or streamed), and variety (data in various formats and from multiple sources).  This is discussed in more detail in Chapter 5 of Big Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools.

Accessing Big Data

References to the proliferation of Big Data and the datafication of everyday life can be found in social scientific literature (boyd and Crawford, 2012; van Dijck, 2014; McFarland, et al, 2016).  While data may be ‘everywhere’, it is important to know where to look as well as develop the skills needed to access the data. Techniques such as web scraping were discussed.  This involves searching for data on the web and extracting it.

There are tools such as Beautiful Soup to facilitate web scraping, and we discussed Selector Gadget which the user can use to identify the code needed to select different parts of web pages.  However, one of the challenges with this is that web sites change, meaning that this might not be a reliable way of extracting data.  Further, web scraping may be illegal in some circumstances as the providers have not given permission for their data to be accessed in this way.

Another approach is to use Application Programming Interface or API. In non technical terms, this means ‘reading the data and putting it into something else’. It is distinct from web scraping, apparently.  Chapter 2 in Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools provides more details on the methods and tools used in collecting data from web sources.

Record Linkage

Big Data may be generated from more than one, indeed several, datasets.   Tokle and Bender (2017) highlight the ways in which Big Data differs from the more usual survey data used by social scientists.  Survey data, usually, contains all the data relevant to the area of research interest.  Social scientists using Big Data may have to use data from several sources.  This relates to the ‘organic’ characteristic of Big Data.  That is, it is typically data that is found, rather than designed (as in survey data) and may come from the myriad everyday transactions of human activity.  These include credit card transactions and social media use.

Researchers using Big Data may want to ‘match’ cases that appear in both datasets.  In other words, data on individuals may be linked across datasets.  This might be very useful to a researcher trying to gain a complete picture of the activity of interest.

Of course, in linking records, there is the possibility that individuals will be identified. We discussed how this meant that informed consent, usually essential for social scientists, is not enforceable. In fact, Big Data threatens informed consent as a value of social research. The consequences of using an individual’s data cannot, yet, be known.  Such ethical concerns urgently need addressing by social scientists  (boyd and Crawford, 2012). Chapter 3 in Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools covers more on record linkage and matching.


This was the most animated part of the session and is testimony to the ability of visualisations to tell a story with data.  Of course, this is nothing new. Historically, visualisations of data including Nightingale’s Coxcombs, du Bois’ hand coloured charts of Black Life in the USA, Jon Snow’s cholera map and Mineard’s visualisation of Napoleon’s march on and retreat from Moscow have been used to tell powerful stories, that data presented as raw statistics or in tabular form could not.

We discusses how there is now an expectation that visualisations will be interactive.  One example we explored was Baby Name Voyager which provided some fun as we entered various names. However, a shocking dramatic visualisation was explored in Out of Sight, Out of Mind,  displaying animations of   drone strikes in Pakistan, and the resulting fatalities .

Data visualisations are not just a way of presenting results, they are also used for presenting findings of work in progress, which has value for Learning Analytics. Chapter 9 in  Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools covers visualisations in more detail.

What has this to do with Education?

Another way of phrasing this might be, why would Big Data not have anything to do with education?  Education and educational practices have long been the subject of quantification (Smith, 2016).   Today:

“Schools are increasingly caught up in the data/information frenzy”  (Smith, 2016: 2).

Big Data has become part of the way in which education is governed (Sellar, 2015; Selwyn, 2015; Williamson, 2015).   In particular, student performance data is increasingly used for accountability purposes.  Leaders and managers of educational institutions will rapidly need to become familiar with Big Data analytics.  Within Higher Education, data is routinely collected from every student transaction (lecture attendance, library visits, assignment submissions) and is collected by institutions, constituting a wealth of digital data on students. They may not be aware we collect, and use this data, and again this raises more ethical issues that researchers are engaged with.   Along with Learning Analytics this data may be be used used to identify those students at risk from failing or dropping out. As Learning Analytics develops, JISC has published a review of Learning Analytics practice in UK and internationally.

A two day course couldn’t cover everything, or produce Big Data experts. Other sessions included text analysis and machine learning, which both have relevance to education, and are  covered in more detail in Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools.


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NASUWT on the importance of Local Schools

This week NASUWT published the results of a survey, commissioned last year, seeking parents’ views of schools and colleges.   Alongside views of education the results reveal the most and least important factors that parents consider when choosing a school or college for their child, as well as the strategies they have used to inform their decision making. The following table reveals the responses to the question:

Which, if any, are the most important factors when choosing your child’s school/college?

(Comres, 2015: 7)
(Comres, 2015: 7)

In reporting these results NASUWT has highlighted location (referring to the school’s proximity to the family home, or parent’s workplace) as the most popular factor to be identified as important by parents.  In contrast, league table position is highlighted as being considered as important by only 21% of parents surveyed.   Clearly, in publishing these survey responses NASUWT are trying to challenge the importance that UK Government discourses place on quantitative measures of school ‘performance’.  The message  given is that parents believe other things are more important when considering the future education of their children and the Government should, therefore, focus on providing more ‘good’ local schools and focusing less on league tables:

“It remains the case that for the majority of parents the locality of a school is a key factor, supporting the NASUWT’s long-argued view that what every parent wants is access to a good local school.”

Aside from what is mean by a “good school”, while it may not appear a surprising result, the identification of locality may be more complex.  As Burgess et al (2014) discuss, while location may be an important factor in school choice decision making, this factor is itself influenced by the context in which the parents are identifying that location as an important factor.

“household location is a choice and may be endogenously affected by demand for high-quality schools. Suppose a family had moved to an area with good academic schools for this reason. This would give undue weight to proximity to the school in estimation, so the true preference for academic quality would appear as a preference for proximity.” (Burgess, et al, 2014: 7-8)

Location is clearly important, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that parents view academic performance as any less important, even though they may appear to do so when asked this question in a survey.  As Ball and Vincent (1998) observe, the school choice process may be a long term project, particularly for middle-class parents, which takes several years.  So, in the example from Burgess et al (2014) parents who may have moved house in order to be in proximity to what they view as a ‘good’ school would have done this because of the importance they place on academic standards.  However, they may well identify proximity as the most important factor if asked about choosing a school for their child.

When asked about strategies employed in school-choice decision making, 29% of parents reported they had checked school performance data tables, which is slightly higher, but not inconsistent with the percentage identifying this as an important factor in decision making.  School Performance Tables are provided by the  Department of Education and this facility allows anyone who is interested to view a range of selected data on schools and to compare this ‘performance’ with other schools. Presumably, if the statistics from the NASUWT survey are representative, around a third of parents are using this tool in their school choice decision making, meaning most parents, around two thirds, are not. Again, the results from this survey are far from nuanced.  As Ball and Vincent (1998) revealed in their study, school-choice decision making is a complex process and the importance placed on ‘cold’ knowledge, such as performance data is shaped by a range of factors, such as social class and gender.  The NASUWT survey  makes a valid point in highlighting that relatively few parents consult this kind of data when choosing a school or college for their child, but more information is needed.  An interesting question remains: what type of parent believes performance tables are an important factor in school-choice decision making and how do they interpret this data?  Or: Are some groups of parents being super-served via school performance tables

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Pupils not claiming free school meals

If you scoured the articles from some of Britain’s popular newspapers for their views on welfare , you could be forgiven for believing that welfare reform was justified, for no other reason than to curb the excesses of dependency, and to end an unfair benefits culture.

Without digressing into how such a discourse is employed as a hegemonic device, it is worth considering that the reality of the benefits culture is more complex.

Late last month, the Department for Education published a Research Report: Pupils not claiming free school meals.  The key findings from the research reveal that while 21% of children aged between 4-15 are entitled to free school meals (FSM), 18% of this age group are claiming this entitlement.  In other words, 14% of children who are entitled to FSM are not claiming FSM.  This is approximately 200,000 pupils.

Entitlement to FSM is based on receipt of specific benefits, however, families in receipt of these benefits have to register their entitlement through their child’s school or Local Authority.  The procedure for this registration varies between authorities and between schools.

Around a quarter of children entitled but not receiving FSM live in the South East.  In the North East there is a much lower non claimant rate, with Darlington, Hartlepool,  Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, and Stockton in the Tees Valley appearing to have 100% of claimants registering.  This may be due to authority wide efforts to ensure maximum registration. For example, my post  from last year looked at Middlesbrough Council’s efforts to urge parents to claim their entitlement. However, the reasons for not claiming FSM are complex, with analysis in this DFE report suggesting that children living in a less deprived area or attending a school with a low rate of FSM are less likely to claim their entitlement to FSM. In neighbouring, relatively affluent North Yorkshire  for example, there is a  high level of under claiming for FSM.  More research is needed to further understand the reasons behind these patterns.

This issue of under-claiming is not just significant for the individual children, but impacts on the funding a school can receive in the form of the pupil premium. The pupil premium is additional funding given to schools as a way of addressing educational inequalities between children from families who are socio-economically deprived and those from more affluent families.    Social scientists continue to discuss the usefulness of FSM as a proxy for deprivation given that receipt is not automatic.   McMahon and Marsh (1999) writing for CPAG discussed lack of take-up, more recently Hobbs and Vignoles (2010), Thrupp and Lupton (2011) have all explored the issue of under-claiming.  Gorard (2012) does suggest that the distinction between “eligibility and take-up may have been eroded” (p. 1015).

The report, published by the DFE  indicates that in many places eligibility of FSM still does not mean claiming of FSM.  As a result, some schools won’t get the extra funding they are entitled too, the socio-economic barriers that some children face will be obscured by the relative affluence of those around them.  And, the tabloid press won’t launch a moral panic about the level of benefit under-claiming in this country.

Pupils not claiming free school meals is written Samaira Iniesta-Martinez and Helen Evans and published as a Department for Education Research Report.

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Wake Up!

This short advert comes via Sociological Images on the The Society Pages where it is highlighted for its problematic reduction of high school dropouts to individual laziness. Declaring that “every 26 seconds, a kid drops out of high school”  it implores an African-American teenager to “wake up” and continue in school in order to avoid an uncertain future.

The advert is part of a campaign run by StateFarm, a US insurance company, and the National Basketball Association NBA which aims to reduce the dropout rate in US high schools.

The advert is problematic for reducing the factors that contribute to the high dropout rate in some US high schools to individual motivation.   It may be tempting to conclude that individual young people are responsible for their own educational fate.  They should simply wake up and get themselves to school. It is presented as a personal choice.  Consequently, educational failure can be seen as an individual responsibility.

However, if we have a sociological imagination to draw on, we can explore other explanations and come to an understanding that the lived experiences of individuals are inextricably linked to wider, social factors.  So, in this case, we know that individual responsibility for high school dropout rates in parts of the USA is not supported by the evidence.

A recent study by Leventhal-Weiner and Wallace (2011) highlighted the differences in dropout rates between different ethnic groups in the USA.  Overall, Hispanic students drop out at a rate twice that of Blacks, who, in turn drop out at a rate approaching twice that of Whites.  As they point out in their research, the schools with the highest rate of dropouts are to be found in the poorest communities in US urban areas, with poor employment prospects, poverty, residential instability and low level of education in the community, all to varying extents contributing to high dropout rates.

This is not to say that individuals are determined by these structural factors. Individuals have agency, though that agency might be constrained by their social context.  Indeed, across the USA there are attempts to mitigate the impact of the social context of pupils considered at risk of dropping out by motivating students and building resilience.   However, as Hopson and Lee (2011:2227) argue:

“Policies that place the responsibility for academic success of students living in poverty solely in the hands of schools and teachers prevent meaningful progress.”

In other words, interventions at school or individual level, while they might mitigate some effects of poverty are no panacea.  Nothing short of structural reform will solve this problem.

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Policing Schools

In a recent Guardian article Chris McGreal reports on the Texas schools hosting their own police forces. Police officers patrol school corridors, maintaining order, arresting and charging students with a range of offences which, had they been committed outside of the school’s jurisdiction would be classified as misdemeanours.  Children who are charged are left with a criminal record which can impact on their future prospects.  Thus, childhood misbehaviour and, more generally childhood itself is criminalised.

Marxist sociologists would argue that schools have long been designed as spaces for the control, regulation, surveillance and discipline of (mainly) working class children.  Drill practice was common in Victorian schools, and galleried classrooms lend evidence to the notion of the school as a panopticon, as do biometric controls and CCTV in contemporary schools in the UK and USAIn the United States, Bowles and Gintis (1976: 39) highlighted the “repressive nature” of schooling with its focus on discipline and obedience.  However, as Hirschfield (2008: 80) observes “the traditional disciplinary project of American mass education is slowly crumbling” as the behaviours of students which would once be dealt with via school discipline are criminalised.

It can be argued that this school to prison pipeline replaces the school to factory pipeline described by Bowles and Gintis (op. cit). Schools are no longer required to socialise the next generation of workers, instead they prevent and punish crime, even if that involves expanding the definition of criminal behaviour. And thus, alongside de-industrialisation the criminal justice system has expanded.  Brown (2006) comments on the numbers of school police officers’ associations in the United State, presumably created to protect, and possibly promote their professional interests.

All this relates to the United States.  The presence of police officers in UK schools is recognised to be increasing. Late last year, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)  published Police officers in schools: a scoping study which explored the ways in which the police service worked with schools.  That report did identify a number of challenges to the successful involvement of police in schools.  However, it also appears to accept early intervention as a rationale for police involvement, and is focused on the mutual benefits to pupils, schools, the police and the community.  The report’s concluding section sets out recommendations for ensuring the ‘success’ of police work in schools.  In other words, schools as agencies of criminalisation might soon be common place in the UK too.

Say Hello

Today, The Kings Speech, is released in UK cinemas.  It tells the story of King George VI, who, although he was never destined to be King, became the monarch following the abdication of his brother King Edward VIII.  George VI, or Bertie as he was previously known, had a stammer, and so the film tells the story of his relationship with Lionel Logue who helped him to face his fears of public speaking in order to make the broadcast speeches that were expected of a monarch, particularly in wartime.   What has that to do with education.  Not a lot, not directly. The release of the film however is the first date in the diary of Hello – the national year of communication.

Supported by the Department for Education,   Hello is the national year of communication, 2011.

What is hello?

It is a campaign, run by The Communication Trust, which is a collection of voluntary and community organisations with interests in speech, language and communication.  The campaign hopes to raise understanding about the importance of speech, language and communication skills to children and young people.  It is estimated that around 10% of children (over 1 million children) have a speech, language or communication need, not caused by deprivation or english as an additional language.  Problems can be exacerbated by poverty, and in areas of high social deprivation it is estimated that upwards of 50% of children begin school with some form of language delay.  Hello aims to raise awareness among parents, children’s workforce, and health care commissioners and providers.  The timing of the release of The Kings Speech fits nicely with the first months’ theme: Don’t take communication for granted.  About The Kings Speech, The Communication Trust says:

“hopefully this film will help others to understand what it is like for those who struggle to communicate and the people around them.”

The British Stammering Association is one of the organisations working with The Communication Trust, and it sees the release of the film is an opportunity to raise awareness of, and to talk openly about the challenges faced by people who stammer.  It has a dedicated stammering in education site which provides invaluable information for school staff, as well as some excellent information concerning pre-school children.

Meanwhile, watch the film.

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“There’s nothing wrong with Borchester Green”

So says Jill Archer in BBC Radio 4’s The Archers. It comes in response to the extra tuition her grandchildren, twins Freddie and Lily Pargetter are receiving in an attempt to ensure they pass the entrance exam to the Cathedral School in Felpersham.  They currently attend the local state primary school in Loxley Barrett.

Nigel Pargetter, the twins’ father, being almost aristocratic and owning a country estate, always intended for his children to go to his old boarding school Clavisborne. Not quite as posh, more middle class, their mother, Elizabeth Pargetter (née Archer), was, at first, keen to allow them to follow in the Pargetter tradition.  In the summer she began expressing her doubts about boarding school, and so the Pargetters began exploring the possibility of the Cathedral School.  The twins’ cousin, Daniel Hebden Lloyd already attends this school.  His father, Alistair Lloyd wasn’t too happy about this, but conceded, partly because Daniel’s grandparents (the parents of his late biological father) stumped up the fees.

The Pargetters are self-excluding (Whitty, 2001)[1] themselves from state education, following an age-old tradition of the upper classes.  They still intend to self-exclude even though they have taken the decision to have the children attend a school close by.  Borchester Green has never been on their radar.

What is wrong with Borchester Green?

The short answer is, nothing.

Interestingly,  Borchester Green is likely to be seen as a ‘safe choice’ for many middle-class parents who cannot afford the fees for private education.  Granted, Borcetshire, Borchester Green, Ambridge, and The Archers are fictional, but it is reasonable to assume that this rural community has a large middle class population who have colonised the state education provision (ibid).  If they were to attend Borchester Green Freddie and Lily are at an advantage, they come from a wealthy, upper middle class family.  Social class remains the greatest predictor of education success.

Surely though, they would  do better at private school?

Not necessarily, private schools are not homogenous, they don’t all offer the same standard of education (whatever that might be).  In any case, why assume the quality of teaching is any better at a private school?  Importantly, private schools don’t equate to the long-established public schools such as Eton and Harrow for the boys, and Roedean for girls.  Here, social networks are likely to be as significant as academic credentials for a successful future life.  I’m not sure that the Cathedral School in Felpersham is quite in the same league.  Additionally, despite their obvious poshness, I’m not sure that the Pargetters are in the same elite social networks as those families who have sent their offspring to Eton and Harrow for generations.

The Pargetters could do no worse than save their money.  Jill Archer is right, the Pargetters have little to fear from Borchester Green.  It is almost as if she had read the recent report from the Sutton Trust which found that students from comprehensive schools outperformed at degree level, those students who went to either Independent or Grammar School.

However, someone should inform the Pargetters that they may have missed the deadline date for applying for a place at secondary school.

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Stressed out teachers, fact and fiction

Recently, in an episode of Waterloo Road, Grantly Budgen feigned depression in order to avoid escorting a group of sixth formers on a trip to London.

The cheerful Grantly

It is a wonder that Kim, Waterloo Road’s Head of Pastoral Care hadn’t previously suspected that Grantly may be depressed.  After all, as she read out a list of  symptoms of depression, Grantly responded: “they’re symptoms of being a teacher“.  Grantly is hardly renowned for his cheerfulness, but suddenly Kim decided that he was, in fact, depressed.  So convinced was she of this, that she shared this with Jo Lipsett, despite earlier assurances of confidentiality.  Does not the LEA have a counselling service for its staff?

Grantlty may have found a friend in the Daily Mail,  if their recent coverage of the trial of Peter Harvey, the science teacher recently acquitted of attempted murder is anything to go by.  Usually, in the Daily Mail you can find evidence of a ‘discourse of derision’ of teachers[1].  However, recently they have become the teacher’s friend.  Take for example this article, it describes “lawless classrooms”  and the chaos and the insubordination, which, apparently are the characteristics of an “average classroom of an average comprehensive” .  The article then features a photograph of the author of the article, Frances Childs, who, it adds, is considering sending her children to a private school.  The popular construction of the comprehensive school as a dangerous place (as well as working class) is found right here in the Daily Mail,  even though reality is somewhat different. 

Amanda Platell, also in the Daily Mail, implicitly holds the Labour Government responsible,  blaming the parents of disruptive pupils,  in particular, single mothers, for driving stressed out teachers to commit acts of violence.  These parents, were, presumably raised and educated under a Conservative Government, though Platell, naturally, misses out this connection when she claims that only the Conservatives can remedy this “wretched state of affairs”.

The behaviour of pupils is a concern for  teachers.  Robert Klasen and Colin Anderson in their 2007 research on teachers’ job satisfaction found that teachers were much more concerned about pupil behaviour and attitude than in the 1960’s[2].  Patrick Barmby also found that pupil behaviour was cited by some teachers as contributing to their decision to leave teaching[3].  Other factors contribute to teacher dissatisfaction and stress, for example the changing nature of teacher’s work. 

The Teacher Support Network reports that stress is a major cause of concern for teachers.  Its figures reveal that 9% of calls to its Support Line were in regard to health and well-being issues.  This does not however mean that the 9% of calls came from teachers who were stressed.  The network also carried out a wellbeing survey in which 87% of teachers reported experiencing stress over the last two years.  However, very few of these teachers will become stressed to the point of attacking a pupil, in the way that Peter Harvey did.  The Daily Mail likes to over dramatise.

To lay the blame with the recently departed Labour Government, is also, to oversimplify the issue.  As Troman, in his article on teacher stress states:  “stress is a pervasive feature of contemporary life” (1990: 331)[4] associated with social changes in later modernity.  Surveillance and a low trust of teachers contributes to low motivation.  The surveillance of teachers and holding them accountable is hardly going to go away with a change in government.  Bad behaviour among pupils isn’t actually the typical behaviour found in the average classroom in the average comprehensive school as the Daily  Mail would have us believe.  The Steer Report[5] concluded that  behaviour amongst the majority of pupils was good, and had actually  improved in recent years.   We will see how the Conservatives remedy this not so wretched state of affairs.

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