A few months ago, David Cameron made an incendiary claim that splashed the Sunday Times and set the news agenda for days: black boys, he said, were more likely to go to prison than university. It was a shocking statement, that quite rightly sparked much discussion. But there was one flaw: his claim was nonsense.
I had to submit a Freedom of Information request to find the real story: black men are twice as likely to go to a top (i.e., Russell Group) university than to prison. Include women, and it’s five times as likely. Include all universities, and there’s no comparison – black teenagers have a higher university entry rate than white teenagers. So this raises an interesting question about the use of statistics: if the PM’s entire news story was based on a fairly basic error, what happens?
The answer is: nothing. This is what Gordon Brown found out about media management: a porkie can travel half way around the world before the truth gets its boots on. It can be ages before anyone rumbles you (it takes up to 20 working days for a Freedom of Information request) by which time the news agenda has moved on.
In this case, I don’t think Cameron set out to mislead. I suspect he wanted to seize some centre ground vacated by Labour by picking up a cause normally associated with the left: racial discrimination. And then, as if to confront his own background, he took aim at ‘top’ universities. But he bungled the calculation, comparing seven years’ worth of prison data to a university system that typically contains three years’ worth of undergraduates (more of this below).
This is why I think this is about more than just bad data. What is a black 14-year-old supposed to think when he hears the Prime Minister saying that he’s more likely to go to prison than university? It would be crushing: he’d think the UK system was stacked against him, that this was a country that made it very hard for a black man to graduate. Would this 14-year-old believe his teachers when they tell him that the Prime Minister was talking rot and that, in this country, skin colour makes no difference to educational chances? Indeed, how is the teacher supposed to know it’s wrong, if the government won’t publish the data?
And what would the parents of black teenagers think, not only about their son’s chances but the Britain in which he’s growing up? The old trope about criminally-inclined black men going to prison rather than college is a notorious American myth. That’s why I thought Cameron’s version of this was nonsense from the offset. If it’s wrong in the US it will certainly be wrong in Britain, where ethnic minorities are more likely than white people to land a top job. It also sounded wrong to black Brits.
— Loibrown Consultancy (@Loibrown1) April 15, 2016
For those who are interested, Cameron had crudely compared the number of black British men in Russell Group universities (2,315 in 2013/14; No.10’s figures came from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) with the number of black British 18-25 year olds in prison (2,644). The latter figure is bigger than the former, allowing Cameron to say that:-
‘If you’re a young black man, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university’.
But the data does simply not support his claim. The only legitimate comparison would be to compare prison population with the typical student ages: 18 to 20. I had to submit a Freedom of Information request to get this data (again, UK domiciled only): in November 2014 there were 977 black people of that age in prison; HESA says there were 2020 black people at Russell Group unis then. So using Cameron’s methodology, young black Brits are twice as likely to be studying at a top university. Note that the prison figure is men and women, so I should say ‘at least’ twice as likely. For both genders, a top university is five times more likely for black British teenagers than jail. And the picture more broadly? University entry rates by ethnicity are below.
So Cameron owes universities – and black teenagers – an apology. It’s tough enough for teachers trying to raise aspirations in the classroom without the Prime Minister making baseless claims about their chances of success. And, worse, doing so for party political gain. Cameron gets most things right, but he got this badly wrong. In his position, words do have consequences. There’s plenty wrong in our university sector (as I write in my Daily Telegraph column today) but it’s a stretch to say that racial discrimination is a feature of the UK system.
Britain is perhaps the only country in Europe where every ethnic minority has better university entry rates than the national average (see graph, below) – something also reflected in GCSE performance by ethnicity, where almost every minority scores better than the national average. This was what Michael Howard meant when he spoke about the British dream: it’s real, and we ought to celebrate it.
Britain has great claim to be the greatest melting pot in Europe. It’s pretty hard to argue that immigrants, or their children, are at an educational disadvantage because of the colour of their skin. Sure, we still have a whole load of problems that need to be overcome. But Britain is a pretty good country in which to be young, gifted and black.