News / National Pupil Database School census

Happy 18th Birthday School Census

Today the school census as we know it, turns eighteen.

What is the school census?

In 2002, the Department for Education made it obligatory for schools to supply each pupil’s full name and their home postcode for the first time in the annual school census. It also demanded details of pupils’ special educational needs, to note entitlement to free school meals, or if they had been excluded from school.

Today, schools don’t ask families for information for the school census. It is simply done without our knowledge, termly, using the school information management systems and uploaded to Local Authority and national government systems directly by schools.

This collects a lifetime record of testing and tracking over time about each child.

Early Years census data, Phonics screening, Alternate Provision at individual child level data are included. The attainment data from Key Stage One and Two from primary school and Key Stages Three to Five are added from secondary education. Data transferred from schools and stored in the NPD include: Unique Pupil Number, Surname, First name, DOB, Full home Address including Postcode and Standard UK address codes, Ethnic group, First language, Gender. The new Baseline Test will soon be added too. Attainment records, absence, exclusions, SEN special educational needs and health data, indicators of armed forces, indicators for adoption or children in care, and much much more.

Pregnancy, mental health, young offender, autism, hearing impairment, and specific learning difficulties, are just some of the new labels added to individual, named records since January 2018 in the Alternative Provision Census (annual). Reasons for Absence and Exclusion and very detailed level, Number of hours of funded provision per week are included, and much more. The full national code sets of all the items of data that can be collected on individual children in school information management systems, can be downloaded here.

Where does school census data go at the DfE?

The census dataset contains approximately eight million records per year. This single central view of a child’s personal confidential data and their educational achievement, behaviours and personal characteristics, is core to the National Pupil Database, a linked database controlled by the Department for Education.

It is “one of the richest education datasets in the world” according to the National Pupil Database (NPD) User Guide.

The data collected for each individual pupil is listed in the National Pupil Database User Guide. (See sections 3.2.1 (school level) and 3.2.2 (pupil level) for full details of data items collected; and relevance to each school year.)

Data is retained indefinitely by the Department, and in December 2015, the National Pupil Database contained 19,807,973 individual pupil records on a named basis. Five years later it is ca 23,000.

Its use is supposed to be narrowly defined in law, for the purposes of a child’s education or well-being. The government has long lost sight of that boundary, and oversteps it.

What changed in the school census in 2002?

Since its beginnings in 1975, the annual “Form 7” census (as it was then known) had only required statistics for a school as a whole – not information about individuals. Even those aggregated datasets were not released externally, and remained closed for 20 years. 

The move from an anonymous statistical database to a personalised database about individuals was the first step in a series of massive privacy invasions that would follow.  

The Department gave assurances that it had absolutely “no interest in the identity of individual pupils” and the census data would be used purely for statistical purposes.  Then Labour Minister for School Standards, Stephen Timms, gave public assurances that there was no suggestion of privacy or rights being breached. The data would be stored securely. No data would be copied to other organisations without a clear need, and would not be used for marketing purposes or sold to private companies.

What changed ten years later, in 2012?

Ten years on, in 2012, under a new government, and led by Michael Gove, the DfE began to give millions of individuals’ data away to hundreds of companies every year. Without any adequate oversight. The Department had no audit process.They didn’t track if third party recipients passed the data onwards to unidentified others. No one measured any public benefit of the release of data. Millions of individual, sensitive and identifying records were given away, and never followed up. The only transparency was an online register that published some of the distribution, the external data shares. There are around 350 shares every year, each of millions of records. How many exactly, no one knows because the Department does not track which pupils data are sent where.

That means to date there’s been around 3,000 releases of data, each of millions of records. We are working on a tool to show exactly what has gone where at-a-glance. The DfE’s own register is broken into different parts, and much has been archived.

The DFE opened up access to a far wider range of users, including commerrcial companies, in order to maximise the value of this rich dataset. But that value has rarely been realised by the children the data come from, if at all.

But they do share individual identity data now.

Many commercial companies receive fully named data, in particular benchmarking companies to support the accountability market, who sell processed data back to schools. But even without names, every release recorded as an ‘external data share’ and in the third party register, is identifying data. Otherwise it could simply be published.

Tab of data Tier definitions in the Department for Education External Shares data register. Source:

In addition to identifiable data being given away for commercial purposes, it has become far from the innocent data collection teachers were told it would be. Identifying data are used for far more sinister purposes now too.

In 2015 the Department announced they would expand the census further to include nationality and country-of-birth. They kept quiet that they had already begun handing over names and addresses monthly from the census data to the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes. The government had completely reneged on the original promise, not to be interested in individuals. Hundreds of individuals’ names were being sent to the Home Office monthly. The Department also failed to tell schools that ‘nationality (once collected)’ had already been added to the paperwork behind the scenes. It was only when the misuse was exposed, that nationality was removed from the agreement, and kept separately. Since its Home Office purposes had been stymied, there was no longer a clear basis for collection but it didn’t stop the DfE carrying on for two years. Now those data need deleted. We await the ICO decision.

Nick Gibb confirmed last year, that the monthly Home Office handovers continues. The nationality data are not safe, and the families it is about are at risk until those data are destroyed.

What else has changed over 18 years?

It has grown not only in volume, as 700,000 new intake names are added every school year, but in breadth as over twenty separate pieces of legislation, have expanded what data could be collected about each child since 2002, in little scrutinised secondary legislation, usually introduced over a matter of weeks and without consultation.

Cumulative changes to laws by successive governments up to and including the 2013 changes enabled the release of individual and named data.

Today the government enables access to over 23 million unique pupil records from every state school in England. Add in the vocational, further and higher education institutions and the National Pupil Database, and the database from all education is truly the richest education dataset in the world at around 36 million people.

Who does it profit?

The  pupil level census collection enabled the creation of the accountability system and benchmarking industry. Hundreds of releases of data every year include giving millions of named records to companies that turn the data into dashboards, and sell it back to schools like yours. The data about your pupils, you created, cleaned and submitted in the school census. But when ‘choice’ doesn’t really extend beyond the available bus route for most families, if it’s not benefiting children, who is the data for?

Ministers claim the data extracts are provided free of charge. But they also claimed “The data would be stored securely, no data would be copied to other organisations without a clear need and data would not be used for marketing purposes or sold to private companies.”

The data workload costs are borne by school staff. The privacy costs by our children.

The concerns in 2002 of the campaign group ARCH, Action on Rights for Children in education, were fully justified. Parents warned that the decision by central government to gather detailed personal information about pupils across England was state-level surveillance and breached children’s human rights. In under eighteen years, the promises made about its purposes, its security, and on children’s data rights have all been set aside.

The school census is a gift for commercial companies. 

Millions of lives-in-data are being given companies to risk score, predict and exclude people in their life choices. School staff have been misled. Families harmed. We’ll not be wishing the school census a happy birthday, but we do wish there would be no more surprises.

Certainly none as surprising as the 2015 Small Business Act. What would that have to do with school records you ask? It enabled the linkage of school records, further education and Higher Education, with tax and welfare records for individuals on unprecedented scale. The Department of Business and Industry oversaw the creation of the LEO dataset, longitudinal educational outcomes or “destinations data”. A dataset more founded on ideology than facts will be hard to find. And it was another gift to business, wrapped up in the Small Business Act. Our children are paying for their profits, with our privacy. But soon, those children will be adults, and many younger MPs data or their children’s, for example, may well be already among those being given away.

We thought the DfE already made data safe?

Despite the introduction of safe settings in 2018, the government continues to give away our children’s sensitive personal data for commercial exploitation.

  • It’s time that stopped. Data must be safe, fair and transparent.
  • Families must be told, where our child’s personal data have gone. It’s a legal requirement.
  • And there must be no excuses made to the millions of adults now, who’ve no idea that their personal records might be used against them in employment screening for example, who were in the database but had already left school, before the government changed the law to give it away to more third parties in 2012.  

Can I opt out of the school census collection?

You can opt out of very limited parts of the collection of data:

  • Ethnicity
  • First language

You can ask your school, or schools can ask the DfE directly, to object and cease processing previously collected nationality and country of birth data.

Can I opt out of the school census use?

There is only a national opt out of data sharing by the Learner Records Service  from Department for Education (DfE). This is just *one* of over fifty datasets the DfE controls, and gives away personal confidential data from. The National Pupil Database is yet another separate melting pot of pupil records. But the LRS opt out, is the only national opt out on offer. We suggest staff over 36 use it. Tell families and friends it exists. Exercise your rights to data protection, after all, it’s your life the data may affect.

Take action >>> Opt out of the use of my national learner record by third parties.

What does the ICO say?

We await the full ICO response to a regulatory complaint through our legal team on the handling of the National Pupil Database by the DfE, as part of our campaign, Labels Last A Lifetime. Initial findings in October 2019, included that there were wide ranging and serious data protection issues. That backed our findings from our 2018 survey, that parents and pupils don’t know this database exists.

“This investigation has demonstrated that many parents and pupils are either entirely unaware of the school census and the inclusion of that information in the NPD, or are not aware of the nuances within the data collection, such as which data is compulsory and which is optional. This has raised concerns about the adequacy DfE’s privacy notices and their accountability for the provision of such information to individuals regarding the processing of personal data for which they are ultimately data controllers.

It’s not only the law to be told where data will be processed, how, why and for how long, but that it is necessary and proportionate. The pupil level census was never necessary or proportionate. We need a national opt out of re-use and better law on collection.

We’re campaigning for every child at age eighteen on leaving school, to be able to know exactly where their digital footprint has gone in the education landscape, and why.

Support us and Take Action to protect your own and your family’s data.

Full technical details

See pages 123-129: