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Happy 3rd Birthday defenddigitalme

Now we are three. Although we have been advocating for safe, fair, and transparent data in education for five years, defenddigitalme was first formally incorporated as a not-for-profit organisation on May 12, 2017.

A letter from Jen Persson, Founder and Director

Birthdays are always a time for reflection, and this year we’ve been doing more than usual. I take my hat off to school staff up and down the country, and beyond, who are doing what no teacher-training can prepare you for. While prioritising safeguarding, and getting hungry children fed, you’ve been called on like never before, to keep communities and classrooms together. You’ve created parallel timetables for children in-and out-of-school, come under fire for doing your best, or not doing enough, and are somehow keeping yourselves and your families together, while prioritising ours, and with confused communications on national expectations. Thank you seems inadequate to say, but as a parent of three, it is heartfelt.

As an estimated 90% of the world’s student population are affected by school closures in the COVID-19 pandemic, technology is playing a vital role worldwide. So what has ours been? After giving government our thoughts on the use of biometric fingerprint readers in schools, and pushing questions on free school meals, we — together with thirty-five organisations across five continents, called for action from policy makers, data protection authorities, and providers worldwide, to co-operate globally to publish guidelines, monitor practice, and ensure compliance. The rushed adoption of technology around the world, risks undermining children’s rights at an unseen and unprecedented speed and scale.

It’s a time when we can all question what we do and how it best adds value to the community we live and work in. Should we keep doing what we do? How will children, schools and the work be shaped by the pandemic? What will matter most in the coming 18-months?

So far the crisis has not only shown us the best of what schools do, but exposed those who exploit children most; or who swing back again ignoring past failures, turning children into data without oversight; who misuse it and breach public and professional trust; who want to fortify their own power base or market share; who want to usher in a new era of human development in their own image; who nudge our decisions as well as children’s minds without transparency; conflate more surveillance with safety; who believe they can predict the future and prevent harm without first asking if their algorithms may cause it; or who build tools in unsafe ways; or those who are keen to undermine our human rights. Many organisations ignore the law, and their duty to promote and develop the rights of the child, including the protection of privacy and personal data. The demands are high, and they’re not going to get easier any time soon. The pandemic, the reactions and responses to COVID-19, will leave the education sector, families, and our children changed. We are sensitive to what the community needs, and we need more than ever, to rise to the challenges we see.

Next month we’ll celebrate our three years with the launch of a report, mapping the data landscape in state education in England for children age 2-18. It consolidates all the strands of our work since we began, some of which we reflect on below. We are delighted to bring together a range of content and discussion for practitioners in education and data protection, senior leadership and DPOs, local authority staff, developers, vendors and the edTech community, academics and activists, policy advisors and politicians —we want to create opportunities for questions and answers across silos. We need to move forward the conversation about changing policy and practice on children’s data rights in education, and turn it into action. More info on the event will follow here.

If you want to help, you can donate, get involved, and keep doing what you do. Thank you for your work and supporting ours. Keep each other going. All our work matters. Because by whatever we do or don’t do for children, we shape their future. We want it to be one in which all their rights are respected. I hope it’s a vision you share.

Jen Persson, Founder and Director

Holding government to account

We started out as volunteers in 2015-16, by researching the National Pupil Database. Our work exposed that the Department for Education (DfE) was giving national pupil data to the Home Office for immigration enforcement. And we contributed in a coalition to a boycott of the new nationality and country of birth data expansion in the school census. Schools and families held back nationality data on quarter of pupils which led to its suspension.

That story’s not over yet, as the schools census is still used to enforce immigration laws. More broadly, the DfE is facing ICO action over ‘wide ranging and serious’ data protection breaches, including our regulatory and judicial review case on the unfair collection and the processing of the National Pupil Database.

Changing policy

We brought about changes towards safer pupil data policy in England in 2018, but since then, the further needed steps stalled to stop giving away raw and identifying pupil data to third parties, and no more improvement is on the horizon. We’re still working on it.

We’ve had the honour of addressing the Council of Europe Committee of Convention 108 and to support their work on developing guidelines on children’s data processing in education across 47 states parties.

And we’ve submitted all sorts of contributions to policy and worked to get children’s rights included in consultations and debates on Alternative Provision and Higher Education in Parliament, including motions to regret that brought no change and those that were won.

Calling for enforcement of the law

We’ve made ten complaints to the ICO regulator on behalf of families and children, and await greater regulatory enforcement.

Encouraging debate

We’ve been involved in all sorts of events, sharing knowledge and ideas for change. We went out across England during the 2019 General Election talking to students, and launched our #MyVote2019UK proposals for legislation to build a rights’ respecting landscape in England’s education system through digital screens in 15 universities, and vans that toured towns and campuses in four regional routes across England, with artwork by the Warren Youth group from Hull (who’re doing amazing things right now, do give them your support).

Raising the voices of parents and young people

We commissioned a poll of parents’ views on the processing of children’s data in schools and use of technology, which fed into our first summary report, The State of Data in 2018.

We began work with the The Warren, with workshops and helping create a film that opened a UNICEF hosted session on the future of human agency, at the 2019 MyData Conference.

Working together

Most recently, over 30 national and international organisations joined us in a call to protect children’s data rights, and for increased transparency and security in the rush to edTech. The Coronavirus crisis has exposed and exacerbated shared global risks to children’s rights in many different ways in education, across the world. We highlighted those in the digital area.

We’ve had some additional national collaborations after the 2016-2018 Schools Against-Borders-for-Children-led coalition to boycott nationality and country of birth that was widely supported by teaching staff and unions, as well as civil society and communities.

We coordinated a call for change in Alternative Provision with over twenty organisations, and with crowdfunded support, that is now pending regulatory and legal action.

What’s next?

There’s still much to be done to make pupil data safe at policy level, much of which has been in the news in the last three years. And much more of our policy work which is not.

We’re learning. We’ve grown. We need your support more than ever. The pandemic, the reactions and responses to COVID-19, will leave education and our children changed. Grant funders are responding to immediate needs, but we also need to keep horizon scanning, looking to the future for threats, opportunities and keep going to shape better than today. With your help, we hope to build from where we are now three years on, and into the future.

Join us next month, and help us move forward the conversation about changing policy and practice on children’s data rights in education, and turn it into action. You’re very much invited to get involved.

Although we have been working towards safe fair and transparent data in education for five years, defenddigitalme was first formally incorporated as a not-for-profit organisation on May 12, 2017. We restructured in 2019 to be a company limited by guarantee without share capital.