R rates and real life stories

I’m venturing into dangerous territory. Mathematics, for me, is a difficult area, and especially the mysterious world of statistics. I only scrambled a Maths O level (remember them?) at the second time of asking and since then I have avoided too much contact with figures except when I have little choice in the matter.


But I think many of us have become armchair statisticians of late as we scrutinize our local infection rates for possible movement in the R number. Mathematical modelling, as shared in the Government’s published paper today, is the new currency that can dictate whether churches can remain open or whether we will be enjoying an alfresco Christmas dinner with our nearest and dearest. Decisions both large and small, national and personal, are now based on a complex formula of numbers and making reasoned predictions. We look for clear downward movement that might spell some return to the new normal.

Some readers who may remember my ‘pre-retirement’ career in a London borough may also recall that I used to lead the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy. Stating this in less than polite company could raise a brief smirk, but my job was to ensure that a robust multiagency approach was sustained to drive down the number of teenage pregnancies, year on year. Being a pregnant teenager was deemed to lower life chances and put the baby on the path to child poverty. Each month or quarter we received figures from the Department of Health which showed how well we were doing and we would be RAG-rated in a public document. Being in the red did not do much for your standing with Ofsted and if our figures were going the wrong way there would be a summons to the Director of Children’s Services office. The trouble was that already being a local authority with a very low rate, literally one or two extra pregnancies a month would turn your score box from green to red. -The power of percentages!


So what about our Methodist Church safeguarding statistics? What story do they tell? There isn’t space to go into all the detail, but I am often asked whether all the attention paid to safeguarding in recent years has impacted on the number of cases of abuse coming to notice. The honest answer is that I don’t think we really know and reports that reach our District Safeguarding teams are not often as clear as data about infection rates or pregnancies – you can’t be sort of pregnant for example. Yes, some clear cut matters become recordable ‘cases’ but other reports are more nuanced and may simply require local corrective action to avoid concerning attitudes or poor practice turning into something more significant.


What we do know, however, is that a key part of the safeguarding task is enabling people who have been hurt to speak out with confidence. This may be about something that happened 30 years or three days ago. Most safeguarding officers report that they are busy and the lockdown hasn’t slowed their work rate. Some Districts are expanding their teams. Every published report from IICSA has empowered people to come forward and tell their own story. The Church’s commitment to tackle Domestic Abuse is an invitation to recognise and respond well to those who feel frightened and trapped in abusive relationships. This isn’t work that is going to go away or reduce. We may be able to differentiate between new matters that occur despite the proliferation of training and safe recruitment methods, and those that have their origins in earlier times, but for each set of statistics we keep there is a set of stories that matter far more than numeric values or percentage variations.


In Advent we are sometimes reminded that Mary was in all likelihood a teenage mum. Her baby was longed for by a waiting world, whatever the local authorities in Nazareth may have thought about it and how the pregnancy affected their performance indicators. Sometimes we have to set mathematics to one side.

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