Census 2021: Sex, Schools and Secularism

2021 Census

Today (Sunday 21st March 2021) is census day. Many of you will have completed this already, many online, some on paper. I’ve always been fascinated with the census and can recall the moments when the previous two were completed. This is the only piece of research that is mandatory to participate in by British law. I find that an incredible thought. I sit on a research ethical review panel whereby research desiring only willing participants is carefully scrutinized for signs of coercion or potential for harm. The idea of mandatory participation is equally exciting and terrifying to my nerdy brain. Nerdiness aside, there are two questions on the 2021 census that I think deserve particular attention; two questions where the resulting bar charts have the potential to be used for good or for bad, depending on the author’s agenda.


The census question on religion is voluntary. The question, which is framed as “What is your religion?” has been criticised by organisations such as Humanists UK for being too leading. As an atheist, qualitative researcher and expert in interview and survey design, I wholeheartedly agree. The wording of the questions assumes a religious belief and can (and arguably has) led many to respond with an answer that indicates a religion best reflecting their heritage or background rather than their practising religion – or lack of. Although “no religion” is an option, the leading frame of the question inclines us to respond with a religion. Like many others, I advocate for the inclusion of the question “Do you have a religion?” Which (in my professional opinion) would allow for a more valid response.

Why does the wording of the religion question matter?

…some may ask. There are many answers I could give from tax exemptions for religious organizations to valid representation. One of the main reasons why a fair question is needed, is to promote inclusive, fair and non-discriminatory education for children. I am leaping a few steps here so let me explain. Religious schools enable discriminatory teaching which is skewed, sexist, excludes sexual health content and anti-LGBTQ+. In order to continue to thrive, such schools rely on statistical evidence which indicates the extent to which England is religious. This evidence generally comes from the census. If the one question on religion continues to be leading, assuming a religion as default, then those people with no religion are more likely to respond in a tokenistic way rather than indicate “no religion”. This results in skewed statistics that can be wrongly used to fuel arguments for a need for religious schooling. To be clear, I’m not against religious teaching, but I am against a biased and discriminatory formal education.


This census brings a much needed, pioneering question on sexuality. Every person in England aged sixteen and over is being asked the question of “What is your sexuality?” This question will bring us closer than ever to a clear picture of LGBTQ+ people in England. Having advocated for bivisibility (greater awareness and visibility of bisexuality) in my research, I’m personally pleased to see “bisexual” listed among the response options. With growing numbers of people, particularly younger generations, identifying with sexual identities beyond straight, gay and bisexual (those listed as response options) it will be interesting and insightful to learn how many people and the nature of those who indicate ‘other’ and use the open text box to state one of the many sexual identities that fall outside of these better known and long-standing sexual identity labels.

The sexuality question, safety and privacy issues

As great as it is to finally see a census question on sexuality, this is not without issue. The Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown means that many young LGBTQ+ people who might otherwise be staying with friends or in university accommodation are locked down at home with parents, many of which they may not be ‘out’ to. When a piece of research such as the census is addressed to the household, rather than the individual, this can be problematic, exclusionary and dangerous to closeted or unsupported LGBTQ+ people. The LGBT Foundation and others have been working hard to raise awareness of the fact that personal data can be changed separately to household data.

Covid-19 and concluding thoughts

Finally, I can’t help but wonder whether or not Covid-19 measures will impact the validity and reach of the census. In instances where individuals are (rightly or wrongly) breaking lockdown rules for overnight or longer-term stays with partners or friends, will we see people missing from the data, due to a desire to evade watchful eyes? I’m unsure of this but am intrigued. I look forward to studying the data and remain cautiously optimistic about its impact. On that note, I’m off to complete my own census form!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *