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UK School Census proposals - How you can help

We all remember the characteristics of the people we went to school with. In primary school, George was excellent at Music; Michelle aced Science in high school; Julian did that odd combination of college courses and had a problem with authority. Well, there's a national database that records all this information and more. The National Pupil Database (NPD, previously the School Census) contains over 400 variables, covers every year of a child’s education from nursery to A-levels, and anyone who attended a state school in the past ten years is included - there is no opt out. And now, the Department for Education wants to allow access to it.

Skip to what you can do to help (or download/print a PDF version)

The NPD contains information most people, including children, would consider intensely private. Not just academic triumphs and failures, but special needs, periods of absence or exclusion from school, sex, ethnic group, native language, disabilities, travel, home addresses and much, much more. Because schools are not required to seek consent to share the data, pupils are generally unaware of the fact that information about them is being shared with unknown third parties. Now the government is running a consultation with the primary aim of ensuring that even more information can be shared with even more people for purposes "not necessarily related to educational achievement", including the media and companies selling "data based products and services".

The DfE says it "anonymises" the data by removing pupil names or obscuring individual reference numbers, but with so many potential reference points it will be relatively straightforward to (re)identify particular children based on the year and school. The ‘anonymity’ of NPD data has already been called into question when at least one young person attending a DfE-run ‘appathon’ believed he had identified himself based on the simple fact that he had achieved an A* in a rare subject at GCSE. Once you start cross referencing the NPD data with other readily available sources of information, the task becomes even easier. For example, an individual pupil’s GCSE and A-Level results could be matched to those sometimes published (on a named basis) by schools in local newspapers or to the information people readily include in their CVs. 

The current rules on NPD data-sharing require that pupil-level information should only be shared with established researchers in the educational interests of children. The nature of the data supplied mean there are no meaningful restrictions on how the data is then used.While the "sensitive" variable of Free School Meals is being withheld, other information that varies with Free School Meals will be published. The new idea of passing this pupil-level data to organisations with commercial and non-educational interests also stretches the original undertaking and educational purpose of NPD far beyond breaking point. 

Michael Gove has said he will listen to the will of Parliament on this issue; so individuals can make a difference by acting now. Privacy International will produce a detailed response on the technical and legal issues over the next few weeks. We believe that this data release risks the privacy of every child. It includes information children have no choice but to surrender to their school, information that they might choose to keep secret even from their friends and classmates.

In its eagerness to "widen access" to this body of highly sensitive data, the DfE is simply glossing over serious issues such as the potential for re-identification of individuals in supposedly anonymised data - a phenomenon that is now well-established in the fields of statistics and computer science. Perhaps most disturbingly, it proposes no change whatsoever to its current oversight and security arrangements, despite its stated intention to open the data for exploitation by commercial interests and the media. This initiative is being promoted under the open data agenda, but this is a wildly inappropriate misapplication of the concept. Open data is about improving transparency on government processes, assets and objects - not exposing the private lives of schoolchildren.

Acting on your concerns

Your actions can affect whether these proposals happen, and help keep children's data safe. In five minutes you can:

1) Write to your MP, briefly explaining in your own words why this concerns you, and asking them to object to widening access to the National Pupil Database: (You may suggest they contact you or Privacy International if they would like more information)

2) Pass this document to your friends so they can write to their MPs. or download/print a PDF version.

3) Send a consultation response before December 18th 2012 - you don't have to write more than a sentence or two, and the important questions are 1 and 4 (you don't have to answer every question). Instructions on how to reply can be found on the final page of the consultation PDF:


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