By Chris A Garrington, on 19 March 2021
This weekend (Sunday March 21, 2021) we will all be asked to fill in our census forms. There’s a key difference this time: the Office for National Statistics, which runs the operation, is aiming for at least 75 per cent of our returns to be submitted online, and the early signs are that millions of people have already responded.
What difference will this make? We do have some information, because the option to complete the Census online was also offered in 2011 – around one in six people opted to do so.
And why does it matter that as many people as possible fill in their returns? I help to run the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Study, a huge resource based on a one per cent of Census returns since 1971: more than a million individual records. Access to the Census data allows us to build a rich picture of people and places in England, to help us look at what’s happened over time and to anticipate what might happen in the future. So it matters a great deal.
It matters that we get as many people completing online as possible, because that will help the data to be gathered and processed more quickly than has been the case in previous censuses.
And it also matters because we know that without targeting, some groups could be under-represented in a Census which takes place mainly online. Prior to the pandemic, there had been plans to hold events – in schools and local libraries for example – to help people complete the census online if they couldn’t do it at home. Obviously now that can’t happen. The census agencies have provided paper forms to all people in areas that think have poor internet provision, or who are less able or willing to complete online. But there’s obviously a risk that some people might be confused, and may not realise how they can request a paper form.
By Chris A Garrington, on 18 March 2021
Back in the late 1960s there was concern that policymakers had too little information about births and deaths: death certificates recorded only limited information and even the occupation of the deceased could be recorded inconsistently. Similarly it was impossible to use information from birth registrations to look at patterns of fertility – how were children spaced within families, for instance? And so the ONS Longitudinal Study was born.
The 1971 Census had recorded respondent’s date of birth – as opposed to age – for the first time. And that allowed statisticians to record data on a one per cent sample of the population – all those born on four dates of birth which were, and remain, a closely-guarded secret.
The ONS Longitudinal Study now holds records for more than a million people, none of whom have any idea that they are a part of the study. It’s only possible to join through being born in the UK or through migrating into it, and it’s only possible to leave by dying or emigrating. The study also holds information for those living with its members, but it doesn’t follow them up in the same way from census to census.
Similarly, the information provided on birth certificates did not allow for studies of birth spacing. Although such data could be obtained from the General Household Survey (GHS), the total sample sizes were too small for detailed studies.
By Chris A Garrington, on 9 March 2021
By Nicola Shelton
When the 2021 census was first planned, we thought some of the biggest research questions to emerge from it would be around the effects of Brexit. But while those are still live, researchers and others will be watching with interest to see what this snapshot of Britain in 2021 will tell us about the effects of Covid-19.
It will be two years before new data begins to emerge from the March 2021 Census – and by then we hope the world will be quite a different place. But what will the ONS Longitudinal Study tell us about the pandemic, and about the changes it has wrought on all our lives?
One of the biggest questions will, sadly, be around mortality data. While the grim daily totals have told us about those who have died, and what their current or last occupation was when they died, the LS can link that mortality data with other information about the whole lives of those who have died. Because we have information going back to 1971, we can know where those people lived, what jobs they had done and what types of families and households they had lived in. It will give us a much richer picture of the complex reasons why some groups appeared to suffer more than others in the pandemic.