With the great power of the Freedom of Information Act, comes great responsibility.
This at least is my mantra when attempting to interpret data I’ve requested through legislation – be it from local authorities, health boards or the police.
It’s all too easy to look at a data set, tot up the numbers, and jump to a conclusion.
The practice of data journalism – more than anything – requires not only a double-checking of your arithmetic but, above all, context.
The Scottish Conservatives research on the number of headteacher vacancies in the country’s schools is a case in point.
They say: “Many Scottish primary schools are struggling to recruit heads.”
But, what is meant by “many”?
Well, let’s take a closer look.
The Conservatives’ figures reveal 51 primary schools in Scotland are without a headteacher.
Granted, while this situation is far from ideal, bear in mind there are 2,056 primary schools in Scotland.
So, does 2.5% of Scotland’s primary schools count as “many”?
Let’s dig a little deeper.
The Conservatives include statistics from the local authorities of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire where the 16 leaderless primary schools account for nearly one third of the national total.
Aberdeen City Council is listed as having the most head teacher vacancies (10) which, when divided by the number of primary schools in the area, equates to 21% of primary schools.
That’s a fifth of schools, which is not an insubstantial number.
And what about Aberdeenshire, which has the second largest number of vacancies with six?
Well, when divided by the number of primary schools in the area (150), that equates to just 4% of schools.
Double the figure
By contrast, let’s look at East Dunbartonshire Council where there’s just four vacancies.
However, with only 39 primary schools, that actually equates to a higher vacancy rate of 10% – more than double the figure for Aberdeenshire.
This shows us that you can’t simply look at the raw numbers, the picture changes when you provide context.
There are also a number of other factors to bear in mind when looking at these figures.
Whenever I submit FOIs (freedom of information requests) I’m conscious of asking for data that will clearly illustrate trends over a considerable time period.
That could be 10 years in the case of a recent BBC Scotland story on school clothing grants or two years in the case of a piece on taxi driver-related complaints.
This is to ensure I’m getting a fair and representative picture of a potential issue.
The June 2015 figures from the Scottish Conservatives, however, are a snapshot in time.
There are always peaks and troughs one must account for and highlight.
This can be seen in historical teacher vacancies between 2002 and 2010.
Furthermore, we don’t know how many of these June vacancies have since been filled, or whether candidates are currently being interviewed for positions.
However, in fairness to anyone doing data research, often getting 10 years’ worth of detailed information can be challenging, with many public bodies often refusing to give you it because of the financial and time costs involved.
Why are there vacancies?
It’s also worth highlighting from these figures that 15 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities – that’s 47% or nearly half of councils – don’t have any vacancies for primary headteachers.
Finally, a BBC article, which the Conservatives themselves link to in their media release, goes a little way to explaining why there are headteacher vacancies.
The piece highlighted a 2009 Scottish government survey asking why only 8% of teachers aspired to become heads.
It stated that factors which put teachers off included “the application and interview process, lack of support, and ‘negative perceptions’ of the job”.
Regardless of what party runs government would reasons, such as these, always exist?
I guess political parties are in the business of convincing the electorate that their approach will make things better.
To conclude, there’s a pressing need for clarity and context when reporting on data.
And ultimately, if that need is fulfilled, then it should better direct the political debate.