News / Higher Education National Pupil Database policy pupil privacy

Response to the Russell Group Report Pathways for Potential

“Elite universities have called for better access to secondary school student data, in order to reduce the inequality gap between the least advantaged pupils and their peers going on to higher education.

In a report, Pathways to Potential, published by the Russell Group today, Britain’s most selective universities call for greater access to the National Pupil Database to ensure that higher proportions of disadvantaged students go on to higher education.

But school leaders say the proposal rings alarm bells and is “a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.

(TES, May 26)

Ask applicants for their personal data with consent

While we welcome proposals tackling student inequality across their education, the data aspects of this report are overly complex, and appear to assume to override consent without any reason for doing so, especially when Higher Education applicants are actively engaged in their application process, and recruitment outreach work need not be at individual level.

The Office for Students may also support the Russell Group’s aim for universities “to be able to access more individualised data so they can identify those students who are most critically disadvantaged”, but we strongly advise this should continue to only be done with the active and freely given consent of applicants, as it should be today.

There is no reason to distribute such pupil data that young people are not expecting, or do not consent to as part of their applicant process. The power imbalance between authorities and a young person who is hoping for a place at the institution they want to go to, is very significant, and is likely to already make consent hard to give freely. Reuses of such data, based on consent should therefore be very cautious indeed.

We have already warned, that the Office for Students, UCAS, Universities, The Department for Education and Higher Education Bodies are in breach of privacy and data protection laws when they distribute equality monitoring data including religion and sexual orientation data, and that it is stored on a person’s individual level lifetime record at the Department for Education without students knowledge, or consent. Any State holding a named list people’s religion, or sexual orientation, and their home address, is notoriously a terrible idea.

Access to pupil data is already excessive

The Report somewhat misleadingly and probably inadvertently suggests on p37/38 that

“universities cannot access pupil-level data contained in the National Pupil Database (NPD) directly. There are also restrictions on whether and how this can be shared with third parties such as educational tracking services.”

In fact, universities are already one of the largest users of identifying data from the National Pupil Database. What they may mean, is that university admission staff cannot access pupil level data for those new purposes and new reasons. Which is entirely correct. Children do not expect that their national pupil records, an entire and detailed school history, can be accessed for new reasons without their permission, by new users, after they leave school. It happens far too widely, and for tracking by commercial education consultancies already. The reason that university researchers do have pupil level data access today, is for *research* which is supposed to be individual agnostic, and not for interventions with any individual.

*Research* which in general understanding is related to the public interest, is one permitted reuse of personal data within the circumstances, and within limitations, set out in data protection law. Commercial exploitation is not. Interventions with individuals is not. There are already serious problems with the re-use of national pupil data. Our poll in 2018, suggests that over two thirds of parents do not know the National Pupil Database exists at all.

In October 2019, the ICO initial findings from their investigation of the National Pupil Database, found that there were wide ranging and serious data protection issues. “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.”

Any proposals for wider use of national pupil data, should therefore start with suggesting the solutions to its existing problems; how to deliver safe, fair and transparent use of pupil data, with clear information for children and their families from collection to destruction, controls about its reuse, for what purposes, and by whom.

New data are not necessary

The suggestion that a household income measure could be developed by linking the NPD to HMRC data on household earnings and “creating an experimental dataset” is simply an unnecessary and excessive fantasy for use with individual decision making. For research purposes, much of this already happens with LEO data and again, there are serious questions of lawfulness.

Any new reuse, including linkage of data, creating new knowledge or insights is a repurposing. There are already plenty of data about poverty, but little action to fix it. What would you do with the data that you cannot already, and therefore why is it *necessary* and proportionate, is a good starting point to ask.


Free School Meals as a poverty indicator and inequality

Interestingly, the report written before this pandemic began, suggests “data on free school meals eligibility should be provided urgently to ensure these deprived young people do not miss out.” The meaningfulness of FSM as a measure of poverty, is going to be questionable for some time to come, given the vast numbers of people tipped into the bracket as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. This alone should be the subject of greater evaluation and solutions need addressed.

The pupil data recommendation highlighted by the TES, are only a selective reading of the Report recommendations, which also ask for the creation of a new Government Office for Tackling Inequality.

The report authors identify that financial disadvantage early in life, carries on into students’ considerations about studying at university at all, and how they do it:

“Alongside the work that universities are doing to widen access to their campuses and support disadvantaged students to succeed, we need a coherent national strategy which enables sustained, multi-sectoral investment and joined-up working to support families from the early years onwards and, ultimately, to widen the pool of applicants to higher education.”

“Financial concerns can cause disadvantaged students to restrict their higher education choices to institutions in their local area, with many choosing to live at home rather than move away to study. This can also be exacerbated by a lack of understanding of the student loans system.”

The report authors propose that comprehensive and long‑term interventions to tackle entrenched social problems, including racial based inequities, are far from easy to address quickly, but evidence from other sectors and other countries shows they are possible, highlighting for example the efforts of by Queen Mary University of London that has made significant progress in supporting BAME students to access, and succeed at, university.

More than a third of babies are living below the poverty line in the UK. The common thread in many [UK] families’ lives, as Helen Barnard, deputy director for policy and partnerships for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation described in 2019, is a rising tide of work poverty sweeping across the country.” Now the Coronavirus is hitting those families harder too. The ONS found that in England the death rate  in the most deprived areas is 118% higher than in the least deprived.

Charities speaking out this week, said that in the decade since 2010, local authority spending on early intervention services dropped by 46% but has risen on late intervention, from 58% to 78% of spending on children and young people’s services over the same period.

Another of the approaches is considering how information about contextual admissions could be brought together in one place to make it easier for applicants to compare the way in which contextual admissions and contextual data are used at different institutions. That must also be done only with clear legal basis and considering the privacy effects for communities, not only risks to individuals.

Any wider uses of applicant data always need to start with the lawful considerations for the use of students’ personal data, and the compatible purposes it was collected for. Reuse of more personal data may be one of the the latest late intervention solutions on offer to solve access to education across a person’s lifetime created by inequality, but is rarely the solution to the problem that everyone wants to fix.

The problem is more often, lack of political will.