What’s being abused here – the teachers or the data?

I was surprised to see the report on the BBC a few days ago about teachers being abused online. Surprised for two reasons – firstly the headline statement read that over 4 in 10 teachers had been abused online by pupils or parents and secondly that I had contributed to the NASUWT online survey which generated the results.

The email I received from the NASUWT

I was pleased to receive the email, because we’ve begun to have some highly positive experiences with Facebook at my school. I wanted to share them.

We had encountered some unpleasant Facebook incidents some two years ago and so had decided to set up our own Facebook page. It may be just good luck, but it seems that merely having a Facebook presence has deterred any pupils or parents from saying anything inappropriate. Both pupils and parents refer to the page to find out what’s going in school – maybe that has ameliorated their language on the platform.

Anyway – I know that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, so I was hoping by contributing to a big online survey about social networking that a growing number of schools who are using Facebook positively might be discovered and reported on. Nope. Not this time. There was nowhere to record number of times abused = 0. There was nowhere to record positive statements about social networking sites.

It seems that just by filling in the survey I was recording that I had definitely been abused online by either parents or pupils or both.

But if that’s the case I don’t get where the 4 in 10 teachers comes from. You see only about half the teachers in the country belong to the NASUWT. Even during the strike ballot last year less than half of those voted – I can’t imagine that more teachers would respond to an online survey than vote over striking over pension changes.

Furthermore, looking at the BBC report I can see no reference to the data of the survey, no methodology. There’s no numbers saying how many people were actually questioned (I’ve no way of knowing whether it was the online survey I took part in that generated these numbers). The BBC have previous on this. Back in August 2011, they took a report from Plymouth University by Professor Andy Phippen to claim that 35% of teachers have been bullied online. Again there’s no numbers. 35% of teachers sounds bad – but if only 20 teachers have been questioned, it’s not much of a survey.

Delving further, the Andy Phippen survey exists, but again its methodology is questionable. We finally have a number of responders – 377:

In total 377 people responded to the survey, providing a solid, broad base for the
rest of the research. (p4)

We discover that these responders have answered an online questionnaire which they were sent to via ‘teaching mailing lists’ (p3) – although that still doesn’t tell us by which criteria each mailing list was generated.

The crunch for me comes with the question that generates the 35% of teachers have been abused online. I was expecting to see some words akin to:

Have you ever been subjected to any online abuse?

But instead I see the question:

Have you or colleagues ever been subject online abuse?

Or your colleagues? Or your colleagues? What on earth does that do to the data? I work in a small Primary school. Aside from ‘my colleagues’ from other schools that I work with, I have 30 colleagues from solely my school. Given that my school could be about average (and it certainly isn’t), my one vote actually counts for 30. That means each of the 377 responders to this survey are actually answering the key question, not for themselves but for 10, 20, 30 maybe 100 or more colleagues. If we average at 30 that means that there are actually 11310 people in the survey. And 117 out of 11310 as a percentage is 1.03%

So 1% of teachers have been abused online.

Don’t get me wrong, that is still a terrible number. With nearly a million teachers in the country, that means there are over 10000 of us who’ve gone through the pain of online abuse. It’s great that the government funded Safer Internet Centre exists to provide counselling and support for those teachers and strategies to reduce online bullying in the future.

But that’s not the issue here. The issue is that bad data has been used to create a statistic that just isn’t right. Now I’ve got no way of knowing the actual number of educators who have been abused in the sample of 377. The minimum number is 117, because that is how many have been reported. It could, of course, go much higher, but the questioning in the Prof Phippen survey isn’t good enough to find that out.

At least, to give Prof Phippen some credit, his survey does actually have the sample size in it. No joy from the NASUWT survey. The press release about the survey just tells us that  42% of those responding to the survey reported online abuse.

Hang on! “Of those responding?” “Of those responding?”

Again. That could be 42% of 50 people, making the survey next to meaningless. But now think back to the survey – it was a survey of online abuse – there was no opportunity to report ‘no abuse’. And only 42% of those responding said they had been abused? In a survey where you can only say “Yes I have been.”

This quite simply is at best bad data, and at worse is plain lying. And of course the BBC and other reputable news media such as Channel 4 here, and the Independent here are completely taken in by it.

To be fair to the Independent they did interview Chris Keates to find that 1200 teachers had responded to the survey, but nobody asked about the questioning. With around 300 000 members, a response of less than 3000 is again in that ball park area to indicate that about 1% of teachers have experienced online abuse.

For the last time, online abuse of teachers is a terrible thing, but we’re not going to fix it by inaccurate data and sensationalised headlines during conference season.

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