Career stage - School (11 - 16)

If you’re between the ages of 11 and 16 and want to find out more about statistics and statistical jobs, this section is for you.

Find out about what statisticians do, why statisticians love their jobs and why statistics is so important. Learn how you can get involved with statistics at school and which subjects can help you prepare for a career in statistics. And if you’re really impressed, we’ll show the next steps on how to get a job as a statistician.

• Statistics are everywhere

Statistics is everywhere around us. It allows us to make important decisions in life and a great skill to have to help you win those arguments with friends, family and classmates.

You may have listened to sports commentaries when the commentator says “and now for some statistics”. The word ‘statistics’ here refers to things such as how many times these teams have played in the past, what the results were, details of how many goals a particular player has scored and when, and so on.

Sometimes, as in football and basketball, the figures can be very detailed. This does not give a good idea of what statistics is about. It sounds boring, and often is. Statistics is not just collecting a lot of numbers – it is collecting numbers for a purpose.

Statistics changes numbers into information. Statistics is the art and science of deciding what are the appropriate data to collect, deciding how to collect them efficiently and then using them to answer questions, draw conclusions and identify solutions.

Statistics is about making decisions when there is uncertainty. We have to make decisions all the time in everyday life and as part of our jobs. Statistics helps us to make better decisions.

For example statistical thinking is used in:

• measuring changes in the environment to see the effects of global warming
• measuring changes in population patterns to see what type of housing is needed and where
• analysing experiments on using fertilisers to increase growth of crops
• measuring the effectiveness of different medicines to find the best and to identify side effects
• calculating how likely it is that two people have the same DNA profile.

Using statistics at school

• Collecting data: making a survey or questionnaire about what eye colour, height or favourite food from your classmates. You then may have to group this data into boys vs girls or age
• Calculating averages: working out the mean, mode and median
• Representing data: drawing pie charts, bar charts, line graphs, and frequency polygons
• Probability: working out the chances that you will pick a classmate who likes the same food as you.

Mathematics contains statistics, though the word ‘statistics’ is not always used. The section on data-handling is all about statistical techniques and their uses.

You will find that the statistical process of asking a question, getting appropriate data, analysing and representing the data and then drawing conclusions is very similar to the process of a scientific investigation. Science uses a lot of statistics in drawing conclusions. You will also find statistics used in different ways in geography, history, citizenship, psychology, economics, business studies and many other school subjects.

You will notice that statistics is used often in all your lessons, not just maths and science. Sometimes, you use it in sports or PE to work out your heart rate per minute or when drawing a graph for a group project about population rates in geography lessons. In England there is a separate GCSE in Statistics now available.

At home, you may be receiving an extra £5 a week and have worked out how many weeks it takes to save for that new games console. When out shopping, you may have worked out which of the several multi-pack, buy one-get two free offers was really the best value.

Whenever you see real data or ‘facts and figures’ in things like newspapers or magazines, ask yourself what they really tell you. If a newspaper article makes a claim based on some data, ask whether the commentary is a true reflection of the data. Sometimes you will find that the article is misleading. Sometimes it is deliberately misleading, often it is not – the writer might not be very good at statistics. Make a note of the ways that you find statistics being misused.

Learn to ask critical questions so that you are aware of both the strengths of good data and the weaknesses of poor data. Ask who collected the data and how – are they more likely to be telling me the truth or are they likely to be biased in some way? If the data has been collected properly, what does it actually tell me? Use the techniques that you already know to understand more about what the data is telling you.

If you’d like to work or use statistics after you finish school, your chances are better if you continue studying. There are opportunities for doing statistics for people who leave school at 16, but they are limited. If you choose that route, you might think of studying for the professional qualifications of the Royal Statistical Society, starting with the Ordinary Certificate which is a level between GCSE and A level.

College/Sixth-form

In the UK, most AS/A2 levels have statistics and probability modules as part of the Mathematics and Further Maths course (2010/2011). Physics will also expose you to some level of statistics. It is a good idea to research the schools or colleges you are applying to find out more about their courses. There is also a statistics strand in the Free Standing Mathematics Unit in England.

Typical AS/A2 level Maths would look like:

• You study three modules: two are core modules building on the algebra, trigonometry and geometry you studied at GCSE and the third module is a choice from statistics, mechanics or decision maths. Choose statistics if you do not plan to take Further Maths AS/A2 level.
• The statistics module may look at methods of evaluating data, probability and describing relationships between types of data.
• The mechanics module is the maths used within physics and deals with how and why objects move.
• The decision maths module is about using algorithms to make decisions to solve problems like traffic flow and reducing queue times.
• Entry requirements are normally 5 GCSEs at grade C or above, including English and Maths. Some colleges will require a grade B or above in GCSE Maths.

UCAS has an online course search facility to help you see what kind of courses you can do and where (for UK students).

In some countries like Nigeria, a National Diploma in Statistics is also available as well as specialised courses such as Forensic Science with Statistics.

If you are staying on at school until you are 18 but not continuing in education to university, you can still find jobs using statistics in many fields. You could start as, say, a statistical assistant and work up through your organisation with on-the-job training. Many large organisations such as the Office for National Statistics or local government can offer jobs as statistical assistants and give training so that progress can be made.

University/Higher Education

Most professional statisticians, however, are university graduates. You will generally need to have a A2 level or equivalent in mathematics if you want to become a statistician. You might also be able to take an AS/A2 level in Statistics. It is also possible to become a statistician through specialising in a numerate subject, such as economics, but you will still need to have good mathematical ability.

Even if you do not decide to pursue the statistician route, a Maths AS/A2 level is a very useful qualification. You can study various degrees such as economics, accountancy and sciences to psychology at university as well as architecture or engineering.