Taking stats to school: A Q&A with William Guy lecturer Jeff Ralph

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Jeff Ralph is head of analysis at the Methodology Advisory Service in Methods, Data and Research (MDR) at the Office for National Statistics, and is this year's Royal Statistical Society William Guy Lecturer. Since taking on the role, Jeff has been delivering lectures about maths and statistics to school students around the UK and tomorrow he is due to speak in Belfast.

We caught up with him to find out how his experience in schools has been so far.

How is the experience going? 

I have really enjoyed the first five events. Each one has been a different experience and I have learned a lot from them. The audience numbers have ranged from 40 to 400 – the larger occasions taking place in lecture theatres and the smallest one in a school library. While it’s nice to get a big audience, I also like the smaller sessions – they are more like a conversation than a formal lecture.

Where have your travels taken you?

I started at Plymouth University – they were hosting a 'maths enrichment' day for year 9 students (13-14 year olds) and my talk was towards the end of the day. The audience numbered about 400 and included students, teachers and academic staff. The second talk was also at a university – in Coventry. This was a celebratory event for sixth-form students who had completed projects with local universities and businesses with support from the Nuffield Foundation. I spoke at the end of the day with an audience of about 300 students, parents, teachers, representatives of businesses and academics. I also handed out certificates.

The next two talks took place in London, one at an academy school in Bromley and the other at a private school in Hammersmith. These were smaller events, with about 40 students and teachers. The most recent event was in Preston, at a large sixth-form college, with an audience of about 150 students and teachers.

Can you tell us more about the topics of the lectures you’ve delivered?

There is one core talk with some variation depending on the type of event. The talk uses official statistics to show how life has changed for teenagers over the past 100 years or so. Along the way I add in a few statistical topics, but in a gentle way so they don’t dominate. I talk about data quality, the value of time-series representation, the history of aspects of official statistics and the growing importance of statistics as a subject. There are also two brief diversions to look at inequality and the value of money. As most students are studying maths in some form, I include a few equations too.

What are your general impressions from your contact with students? How do they perceive maths and statistics?

It is clear that maths and statistics as subjects are highly valued and respected by students. Although the majority who will continue with study after sixth-form won’t be studying these subjects directly, they know that both maths and statistics are very useful for a broad range of other subjects. One of the points I make is that in an increasingly data-rich world, more maths and statistics will be needed.

Do the students know much about ONS and what it does?

There’s an interesting mix here. Those students studying maths are focused on the specifics of the subject – calculus and algebra and tend not to know about us. However, the students of the more socially focused subjects learn about ONS and official statistics as part of their studies. For example, at Preston the students studying for a BTEC in Health and Social Care use our outputs in their course. When it comes to trying to understand society, I don’t think it is possible without official statistics.

Do you have any interesting observations from your travels?

The presentation part of a talk is well-prepared in advance – of course. The question and answer part is rather different as you have no idea what will come up. I have had questions on the properties of the geometric mean, how to judge the quality of statistics and what I thought of the exchanges between Boris Johnson and Sir David Norgrove towards the end of last year. The larger audiences tend to ask fewer questions – I think the students are too self-conscious. In contrast, the smaller, specific school events generate lots of questions – both during and after the talk.

I receive a very warm welcome at these events. Schools are very keen for employers to come in and talk about what they do. The teachers value speakers who show that the topics the students are learning about are actually used in the world and don’t just appear in the pages of a text book. It’s useful the other way round too – perhaps a few in each audience will be motivated go on to do analytical and other degrees and end up in the Civil Service.

Around the talks, I have met teaching staff, students, academic staff, parents and local business people. It’s been great to chat and hear views on all sorts of topics from the specifics of statistics to preparing students for the world of employment.

What are your plans over the coming months? Which schools and areas will you be visiting?

The next event is in Belfast where I will appear in the schools section of the Northern Ireland Science Festival. I have some regional statistics in my talk, so I will be changing these to be specific to the location.

After that, a big change is coming up for me – I am retiring and leaving ONS at the end of February. The RSS role will continue to the end of the academic year and I don’t get much of a break before the next event – it will be on Saturday 3 March at the Cheltenham Ladies College, a local school to me and one I have given talks at a few times before, so I know it well. There will be students from other schools there too. There’s almost no break to the next event after that – I will travelling up to Bolton in early March to give an evening talk to local schools. This event will be open to the public.

There’s a gap then until what is currently the final event which will be in Aberdeen in June. I have been asked to do an additional talk to university students while I am there. It is possible that there will be other requests, so I may have other places to go!

Find out more about the William Guy lecture and how you can organise a lecture at your local school. If you're interested in applying for the role, find out more and download the application form.

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