The idea of the Census is to provide information. Yet, like any questionnaire, the quality of the data gathered depends very much on how the questions are asked.
Take the matter of religion, or lack thereof. I happen to be an atheist, yet Question 12 baldly asks “What is your religion?”. The assumption is made that you have one. Sure, way down the list – after all the various religious franchises have had a mention – comes Option 7: “no religion”.
Brian Whiteside, writing in yesterday’s Irish Times, describes the confusion that could arise as a result of the authorities framing the questions as they have:
“People who come from a religious background but no longer practice any religion and have no religious belief would most likely answer No to the question “Do you have a religion?” But when asked “What is your religion?”, followed by a series of options including the one the person was born into, that person may tick the box of the religion they were brought up in but no longer practice.
"But if people are in doubt, won’t they be helped by their enumerator, the person hired to distribute and collect the forms and answer questions about the census? Well, they’ll be helped all right; but on the question of religion the enumerators have been instructed to guide people to fill in the form to reflect their background rather than their current position. How does this help us plan for Ireland’s future?”
Whiteside’s point is that the authorities supposedly use the information gathered from the Census to plan for the future. If that information is not acquired in a straightforward, honest way it will be inaccurate, and will not reflect demand for non-denominational schools, for instance.
The same applies to questions concerning Gaeilge. Current census figures state that 1.6 million speak it, which is clearly nonsense as this figure includes children above the age of three in an education system where Gaeilge is compulsory. Was I a Gaeilge speaker when I was four then?
Likewise, any question that relies on self-assessment could be said to be inherently flawed. Does an ability to say “Can I go to the toilet” as Gaeilge make one a fluent speaker? You would wonder how many half-wits with a few words of Christian Brothers Gaeilge might think so when framing their Census responses.
The errant information, in this instance, serves only to put a rosy gloss on the supposed number of Gaeilge speakers in Ireland… something that might please the Gaeliban, as their concern is window-dressing. Reality is something they have little time for.
More worrying, however, is the question on religion. If the Government claims to use Census figures to cater for future needs, how much does a badly asked question on religion - or none - skew the figures?
And if the feedback is inaccurate, how can it meet the country's future requirements for inclusive, vernacular, non-denominational education?
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