That’s a bit of a mouthful, so most people who need to use it call it SIMD. And most of those refer to it by sounding out the initials — Ess Eye Em Dee — but there are a few geeky types who have to deal with it day in and day out and they just say “simmed”. When it was first produced, in 2004, I was in that last category and have kept the habit, even though I’m no longer immersed in it. In fact, I was never very deeply involved with the content of SIMD as it hadn’t really established itself by the time I moved on to other things — for my role at the time, though, it was the beginning of something very useful: a way of seeing the context in which our public services were operating.
There is so much public anguish over school league tables in the UK, that I won’t add to it here. Fortunately, the atmosphere surrounding school education in Scotland is not as fevered as it is in England. But local authorities still have to deal with the question: are our schools doing as well as they should be?
I don’t see this as an inherently contentious issue, though I know some teachers see red at the thought of any kind of performance measurement at all. However, common sense tells me that not all schools can be doing exactly as well as each other. Of course some schools are run better than other schools, just as some teachers are better than other teachers. Only a couple of weeks ago, a friend and I were reminiscing, if that isn’t too soft a word, about the really-incredibly-awful physics teacher we endured at school. The awfulness was enough to put me off studying physics, even though I was very keen to do so, but luckily it was not quite enough to deter my friend — who went on from A-level physics to study engineering at university. (I started on the A-level, but changed to French before the first week of term was over. For some reason I had thought it would all be different in the sixth form, but suddenly realised that this teacher was going to be exactly the same for the next two years as she had been for the last two. I couldn’t face another minute of it!)
What has this to do with SIMD? Well, SIMD tells you in quite a lot of detail about the background of the children in any particular school. It is called an “index of multiple deprivation” because it is made up of lots of different information that describes how deprived, or not-deprived, an area is. The areas in SIMD are pretty small, typically including around 800 people, and there are six-and-a-half thousand of them to describe the whole of Scotland. The multiple factors which make up the index include all sorts of things, like how many low-weight births there are, how many families are on low incomes, how many people are out of work and how far it is to the nearest Post Office. There are many component parts, grouped into “domains“, and then weighted and combined into the overall index. The areas are ranked according to their scores from 1 to 6,505. If you live in area 6,505 then you are in the most affluent part of Scotland (Banchory in Aberdeenshire, in case you were wondering) and if you live in area 1 then you are in the most deprived part of Scotland (in the city of Glasgow).
Whether we like it or not, there is a very high correlation between the level of deprivation in a school population and the outcomes from their years of education. That is, across Scotland as a whole there is a high correlation: children from affluent areas generally leave school with lots of qualifications, children from deprived areas leave with fewer or no qualifications. But the SIMD allows you to test an individual school against that general picture and that is when it gets interesting. If you were running a school in area 1 in Glasgow, chances are your pupils would not be doing as well as those going to school in Banchory. But are they actually the worst in Scotland? Maybe you are bucking the trend, and your pupils are not leaving school with the lowest qualifications in the country. Maybe you and the kids all deserve a bit of credit for that. And maybe some other schools could be looking to you as an example of how they can do well in difficult circumstances. This is by no means straightforward (what is going on here, for example?) but it is the sort of thing that local authorities try to get to grips with by using the background information from the SIMD.
And that is why in 2004, when it was new, I was trying to find ways to present SIMD visually. And now I want to try and weave some of those visualisations. But this post is long enough already and more than usually dense. It’s far too complex a topic for me to do it justice here but I do want to make sure that I have documented some of my thinking as I work through the project… so I am afraid there may be more dense posts to come.