Page last updated at 18:32 GMT, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

How the UK census helped inspire School Report's Survey

A householder fills out the census
The 2011 census will be able to be completed on paper or online

The UK has a national census once every 10 years, and the next one is on 27 March 2011, just three days after the School Report News Day.

This could be the last traditional census ever conducted in the UK as the government begins to looks at alternative methods of gathering the crucial data.

Inspired by the news, the School Report team decided to set up their own survey with the focus on finding out how teenagers are living now.


A census is essentially a detailed headcount of all the people and the households in the country. It provides statistics from a national to neighbourhood level for government, local authorities, business and communities.

The 27 March census will see every household in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales fill in the form, either online or on paper, with the 56 questions covering areas including work, health, national identity, citizenship, ethnic background, education, second homes, language, religion, marital status and so on.

A householder looks at the census form
The census is compulsory for all households to complete

The forms will then be collected and the data analysed to produce the statistics which will form the basis for future investment and planning decisions.

More than 35,000 temporary workers will be needed to help run the census for England and Wales alone.

In England and Wales, the census is planned and carried out by the Office for National Statistics, while the General Register Office for Scotland and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency take responsibility for their country's data.


The data collected in a census is a key part of the way government departments and local authorities make investment and spending decisions.

It helps provide a snapshot of the nation at a particular point in time, with questions about work, health, national identity, citizenship, ethnic background, education, second homes, language, religion, marital status and so on.

If, for example, the census reveals a large increase in the number of older people in a particular area, that may well have implications in terms of the spending needed on local hospitals. Similarly, if there is a steep spike in the birth rate, more money might need to be invested in education.


The fact that the census falls so close to this year's News Day got us thinking about conducting something similar - but from the perspective of young people rather than the adults who will fill out the form on 27 March.

The idea is to give us a snapshot of the UK through the eyes of the 11-16-year-old age groups: their concerns and interests, how they like to spend their time and so on.

The results of surveys and questionnaires are often reported in the broadcast media and in newspapers, sometimes revealing interesting insights into a particular community or issue.

The ability to interpret statistical data is a key - and sometimes undervalued - skill for many journalists, and as part of the School Report Survey, the BBC are giving back each school their own data and providing resources to help School Reporters get to grips with the business of reporting stats.


Back in 1086, William the Conqueror asked for the Domesday Book to be produced, detailing land and property ownership and use, as well as population statistics.

In Tudor and Stuart times, local bishops were tasked with counting the number of families in their areas, but religious concerns (some churchgoers believed that any type of people count was sacrilegious) meant there was some strong resistance to a full-blown census.

But it gradually became apparent that an official census was necessary and the first was held on 10 March 1801. A census has been conducted every 10 years since, with the exception of 1941 when the demands of World War II meant that a national survey was not possible.

The 1801 census found that Great Britain's population was 9 million; in the most recent census in 2001 the UK poipulation was nearly 59 million.

Methods for processing the census forms have moved on since 1931
Machines like this were used to process census forms in 1931

Census organisers have tried to make use of the best available techology to make the collection and analysis of the data as straightforward as possible, with machines used from 1911 onwards.

Nowadays, of course, computer technology - first introduced in 1961 - is utilised to speed up the processing of the millions of forms, while the form itself can also be filled out online.

The census has also been caught up in the social and economic issues of the years in which it was conducted. In 1911, for instance, the suffragette movement threatened a boycott as part of its protest to secure voting rights for women.

"If I am intelligent enough to fill in this paper, I am intelligent enough to put a cross on a voting paper," was the comment written by one woman who filled out the form, while many others deliberately stayed away from their homes on the night of the census!

Census data is strictly confidential for 100 years after they have been completed, but to celebrate 200 years of the census in 2001 the Office of National Statistics released forms filled out by the likes of Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale.

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