The government needs to stop ignoring the social disaster of women deserts

The Centre for Applied Data Torture reports.

In an as yet unreleased report – which was nonetheless the subject of a feature on Newsnight on Monday – the Centre for Social Justice draws attention to the social timebomb of men deserts in many areas in the UK. A press release (pdf) for the report states:

Around one million children grow up with no contact with their father

Many are in “men deserts” and have no male role model in sight

In a foreword to the report, titled: Fractured Families: why stability matters, from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), Director Christian Guy warns of the “tsunami” of family breakdown battering the country. He says the human, social and financial costs are “devastating” for children and adults alike.

CSJ have used an original approach to the analysis of small area Census data to unmask the social crisis of “men deserts”. As they say “The report features ‘league tables’ showing the parts of the country (Lower Layer Super Output Areas, which have an average population of 1,614) where fatherless and lone parent households are most prevalent. In one neighbourhood in the Riverside ward of Liverpool, there is no father present in 65 per cent of households with dependent children.”

By coincidence, my colleagues and I the Centre for Applied Data Torture (CADT) have also been working on the worrying phenomenon of gender imbalance in local populations, also using small area Census data. Our conclusions, to be published in a report which like the CSJ we are unfortunately unable to share just yet, are in some respects even grimmer than theirs.

The CSJ has drawn attention to men deserts where children may never encounter a male role model from one end of the year to the next. But has the CSJ really identified the UK’s worst men deserts? Their press release in fact makes no reference to how many men are living in these areas, just to lone parent households. We have gone one better and looked at the gender balance in neighbourhoods across England and Wales (this took us about half an hour on Nomis).

We define a men desert as a Lower Layer Super Output Areas where the percentage of men in the population aged 16-74 is less than 40 per cent (on average, the percentage is a little under 50 per cent). Like CSJ, we find that thousands of children are growing up in these men deserts. It is true that there aren’t very many of these areas: only 14 out of the 35,000 LLSOAs in England and Wales. We’ve extended the range a little to include areas where men come to 41 per cent of the population in order to get a top 20 ranking comparable to the table in the CSJ’s press release (see the full table here).

Some will say these small numbers mean there isn’t a problem here, but like the CSJ, the CADT believes it is quite inappropriate to use statistical evidence to talk down the scale of social breakdown: on the contrary, statistics are for talking up problems, whatever their true scale. However low the numbers may appear, we should be very worried about the prospects of children growing up in these manless wastelands. Fortunately as there is a total of 2,600 households with children in all of these areas, targeted intervention should not be prohibitively expensive even in these difficult times.

But the CSJ have missed a much larger scale social disaster which CADT’s research identifies. There are many more areas which are “women deserts”, where the share of women in the adult population is 40 per cent or less. There are 224 women deserts in England and Wales, with a massive 34,000 households with children struggling to survive as the normal gender balance of the population is undermined. And the women deserts are much more extreme than the men deserts: in some areas (well, three in fact) over 80 per cent of the adult population are men, and in 30 areas more than 70 per cent. Contrast the men deserts where at worst only 64 per cent of the adults are women. Moreover while men deserts are mainly an urban phenomenon the women deserts extend their reach into the heart of middle England: in parts of Huntingdonshire and Wiltshire the male share of the population is a staggering 77 per cent. While like CSJ with men deserts, we have no wish to condemn the cultures of womanlessness of these communities, it would hard to overestimate the impact on children’s development of growing up in areas where female role models are so scarce.

So the CSJ’s concern with areas where children lack male role models should be extended to the vastly greater number of areas where they lack female role models.

Enough nonsense. Something has obviously gone seriously wrong here. What we have is not a problem of women deserts or of men deserts but of the inappropriate use of small area data. Lower layer super output areas contain an average of 672 households: a handful of suburban streets, or an area of a few hundred metres radius in densely populated urban areas. When we are dealing with very small areas, we expect to get extreme values at either end of the distribution. (Consider how much more extreme the figures might get as we reduce the geographical scale to a single street, or a single household.) Just about the dumbest thing you can do with this sort of data is rank the areas and then use the top or bottom of the rankings to make some general point. Which of course is what the CSJ has done, using the top of the ranking for the share of lone parents among households with dependent children to conjure up a fantasy of men deserts.

Given that we expect to get extreme results at small area level, why do we have more women deserts than men deserts? The figures are, we should imagine, largely driven by the proximity of army barracks and men’s prisons to some residential areas. (But note that these areas have similar numbers of households with children to men deserts - our women deserts are not just barracks and prisons!) Similarly for the tiny number of men deserts, a scattering of medium rise social housing blocks would be enough to produce extreme values at this geographical level. The good news is that kids can usually escape these men and women deserts by walking a couple of hundred yards. These sort of considerations explain why competent researchers tend to avoid drawing broad conclusions from the extremes of the distribution.

What about the idea that areas where there are a lot of lone parent families have few men? It is without foundation – in those relatively rare areas (1.6 per cent of all LLSOAs) where lone parents constitute 50 per cent or more of households with children, the average share of men in the adult population is just below the national average at 48 per cent.

In short, men deserts are an artefact of ideological presuppositions, statistical incompetence and media gullibility. Anybody who bought this pup from the CSJ should be ashamed of themselves. To news editors, we have a simple message: next time you’re offered startling statistics by the CSJ or any other factoid-pedlars, get in touch with the Centre for Applied Data Torture. We guarantee to top anything they have to offer.

Pictured: A desert. Possibly a men desert. Photograph: Getty Images

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

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Oxbridge’s diversity failure is so severe it’s time to ask if it’s wilful

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems.

“We’re not the best”.

It’s the open secret that every Oxbridge student eventually comes to accept. Some realise it during their first term, informed by the mundanity of their year group’s Received Pronunciation-dominated conversations. Others learn the humbling fact mid-way through a tutorial, or when first entering employment. For a remaining few, it took the allegation that their peers amuse themselves with porcine-related debauchery for them to question whether the Oxbridge cohort really does encompass the brightest and best.

Yet it remains almost sacrilege to voice anything other than self-deserving grandeur when it comes to Oxbridge’s student intake. Admissions tutors maintain the infallibility of their interview technique in selecting the country’s most promising students but still, admission figures show an unrelenting bias to a white, middle-class population. Pupils from independent schools dominate 43.7 per cent and 37.8 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, black students are half as likely to be awarded a place than white applicants and students on free school meals are under-represented by a factor of more than ten to one at the universities.

I’ve spent the past six months researching the under-representation of disadvantaged demographics for OxPolicy, an independent think-tank comprised of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers. Our report, published tomorrow, reveals an even bleaker picture. Statistics obtained by Freedom of Information requests show the universities’ own efforts to support applicants from under-represented demographics are consistently failing.

Consider Cambridge’s admissions last year. Applicants from schools flagged by the university as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared to 28.5 per cent for unflagged students. This trend was replicated for an array of markers recorded by both universities, including living in a deprived area and attending a school with poor academic attainment. The discrepancy translates into a statistical equivalent of 275 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on places at the University each year.

When we approached admissions tutors to discuss the topic, we were met with a general sense of denial. “It would of course be good to have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” commented one, “but factors substantially outside the control of universities make this difficult”. Others were blunter. “I don’t think there is a problem” was one tutor’s only response to our question about under-represented demographics. “It is self-evident that the University is not to blame” asserted another.

The universities’ senior staff offered similar retorts. In January of this year, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Dr Samina Khan, claimed that applicants were “more likely” to be shortlisted for interview if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. The figures in our report show this to be statistically untrue. When I presented our findings to Khan she was unavailable for comment, although she referred me to the University Press Office. A spokesperson insisted that our statistics “did not suggest a bias on the part of the selection system,” attributing the discrepancy instead to the “lower prior attainment” of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this confidence was not shared by everyone we spoke to. One tutor told us that “more could be done” in terms of the “implicit biases [that] play a role in the problem,” while others expressed concern that “not all tutors [were taking] contextual information into account”. “I use contextual data, but it's limited. I'd like to get more” suggested multiple respondents.

Other replies were more concerning. “A lottery would be fairer than the current system” was a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion. Another tutor who had more than twenty years of experience of handling admissions blamed the universities’ senior staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’ which refuses to admit they have a serious problem”. “There is a stark refusal to allow evidence to impinge on decision-making. Anyone looking in from the outside would think we were deliberately hostile to widening access”.

A 2012 report by the Supporting Profession in Admissions programme analysed the kind of evidence this tutor was alluding to. The document summarises the policies of UK Higher Education Institutions which have used contextual data in their admissions processes. Policies include offering students from under-represented demographics lower entrance offers, being more likely to invite these applicants to interview, or giving their applications extra weight in borderline decisions. While 40% of these institutions reported that students admitted because of their contextual data out-performed their peers, not a single one concluded that these students performed worse than the rest of their cohort. One study, carried out at the University of Bristol, revealed that contextually-admitted students were outperforming their peers by such a margin that reducing offers by up to three A level grades was justified. In other words, when universities gave a selective advantage to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were rewarded with a higher calibre of applicant.

This evidence from universities across the UK clearly suggests that Oxbridge should rely more heavily on contextual information in admissions. However despite officially recommending that demographic data be considered in decision-making, neither university provides obligations nor incentives for its admissions tutors to do so.

In fact, not only are tutors not obliged to consider contextual data, but the funding arrangements at Oxbridge mean that colleges are actively discouraged from admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In each of the years I studied at Oxford, my parents would receive letters requesting donations; to support learning opportunities, teaching resources or construction projects. They were invited to countless drinks events and fundraising dinners to the same effect. It was symptomatic of a culture that pervades the collegiate system at Oxbridge - we will educate your son or daughter, and in return you will support us financially.

Oxbridge colleges operate in networks dominated by white, middle-class and southern-dwelling families. Fixated with the idea that they are short of money, the stakes are too high for colleges to risk losing the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive in annual donations by pioneering a new access policy. Their reluctance to diversify their student intake is as much about preserving capital – whether financial or cultural - as it is an unwillingness to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The admissions tutors we spoke to in our investigation openly discussed the existence of “an unconsciously corrupt relationship between many colleges and independent schools”. No surprise then, that many tutors expressed a desire for admissions to be dealt with by the central university. “Decisions are left almost entirely to a college’s discretion, there is no way that the University can exercise any oversight over the representation of different demographics” they warned.

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems. Their admissions officers should stop telling the press that disadvantaged applicants are more likely to be shortlisted for interview when the opposite is true. They should follow the lead from other UK universities whose contextual data initiatives have led to almost universal success. And they should encourage all their admissions tutors, by either obligation or incentive, to follow the evidence and give a bias towards, not against, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No longer can we believe the myth that Oxbridge’s diversity crisis is a result of incompetence alone. The universities’ failure on admissions is so stark and longstanding that even its own students are wondering if it’s wilful.

OxPolicy is a think-tank set up by Oxford University researchers in 2013. It produces regular policy papers on a variety of issues from a non-aligned stance. You can access their reports at their website, www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.