News / National Pupil Database

End of term report: summer 2021

31 July 2021

We closed the first half of the 2020-21 academic year in December, with a round up reflecting on a very challenging autumn term for schools. After ten months of rapid responses and uncertainty in the pandemic, Audrey Watters had written, ‘It’s been a cruel and terrible year — one that has changed many lives irrevocably. But will it change institutions? Will it change educational practices?’
What does it look like now, at the end of this school year?
Spring term 2021 started with a response from the Department for Education (DfE) to the Information Commissioner’s Office audit. The Department set out a range of internal efforts in a programme of work, including fixing the ‘cultural issue’, The lack of importance placed on data protection in the development of policy and ways of working.” The DfE committed to publish a further update in June 2021. (It is still outstanding.)
In March we were pleased to hear we had secured another win in the coalition campaign to oppose the expansion of the school census in 2016 and its intended use. The nationality and country-of-birth data from millions of school children, was deleted by the Department for Education. We received written assurance from the Department that the standards of destruction were adequate, and we called again on the Minister to revoke the 2016 change in law that enabled the controversial collection in the first place.
Ofqual held a consultation asking nearly 70 questions on this year’s exam process. But it failed to suggest an answer to the most important one: How will candidates trust that a grade this year, or any year, is accurate and fair? What will be different this year and going forwards, so that students won’t need to stand outside Gavin Williamson’s office in Westminster, in order to be heard? We see little change since then and nothing meaningful that will change how candidates feel about the fairness and trustworthiness of the system. Candidates cannot see how the comparable outcomes model of grades is rigged up, how ranges are set, or how many can achieve what grade regardless of raw scores year on year. We propose that every candidate should receive a Personal Exam Grade Explainer (shortened to P.E.G.E, that we’ll call “Peggy”). An individual report for each result. Now and in future, Peggy should help transparently explain how *my* grade was calculated, not provide generic descriptions of the process.
The outcry over unfairness this August, might be less loud than last year without people raging against the machine, but shifting from an algorithm to centre assessed grades won’t do much for claims of discrimination or to fix a comparable outcomes model and progress 8 flight path system of profiling children that by-design, puts a cap on aspiration. We proposed a moratorium in 2020 on league tables, accountability, and Progress 8 measures until at least 2025. In summary after 18 months of the pandemic, the knock on effects of “all our data scrambled to the point of uselessness in any case“, should not be underestimated. “Now is a time to stop and think”.
The bigger picture also includes the effects of a rapid increase in the broad adoption of technology. When it comes to digital statecraft and security, commercial edTech in schools is also essential in the delivery of core national education infrastructure and should be considered in the national risk register.
One of our continued areas of concern since before COVID is the DCMS Online Safety Tech alongside the Online Harms agenda. Where is the public understanding of how such systems work?  There is no transparency where they record all screen content all of the time, debate on how invasive they are, and the surveillance tools operate without any independent oversight. Its active promotion for worldwide export is truly worrying. Not only do some things need to change, but some must stop.
While the ICO put some products under scrutiny, no public action was taken. One Artificial Intelligence-based predictive app for children’s mental health was found ‘likely unlawful’ by the ICO review, but there was nothing published. In a second case on a leading behavioural tracking app that claimed to use AI, the ICO found in fact no AI in the product. While there may have been changes that ended false advertising to schools, the product continues to be widely used and again, the ICO published nothing of its findings. And parents’ complaints against forced adoption of Google accounts were dismissed. Curious given the findings in other countries. In March in the Netherlands it was reported that, “Google products used in education are not secure enough. The privacy risks are too great, education ministers Van Engelshoven and Slob wrote in a letter to the Lower House. These are the products Google Workspace and Google Workspace for Education (formerly G Suite for Education)…applications such as Gmail, Google Classroom and Google Docs.
In July 2021, The 5Rights Foundation Digital Futures Commission’s new report, Governance of Data for Children’s Learning in UK State Schools, written by Emma Day, captured much of what needs to be done differently. Baroness Kidron opened the launch event with a generous acknowledgment of our work published last year, “The report owes a huge debt to defenddigitalme who in 2020 published a detailed analysis of what was happening to pupil data. We salute them for their persistence in bringing this issue to the fore.” You can both watch the event discussion and catch up on their excellent recommendations here.
So this year yes, we have seen changes at institutions, and in educational practices. But the question is, who has benefited? Changes in data governance that would be in favour of families and children’s rights in state education, are still to come.

Looking at where we are now, what lies ahead?

The Department for Education update on its actions on national pupil data governance in response to the ICO audit has not yet materialised. In September we expect nothing less than DfE to address the full scope of the audit, what has been done and what remains to do by when.
Education and policing are increasingly closely linked, and will be more through the new Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill. We continue to work to include children’s interests in discussions on emerging issues with the College of Policing and Home Office. SafetyTech systems are in part promoted by companies as a way to meet the Home Office Prevent duty. The education sector makes almost a third of all referrals, almost all for the under 20s, so why do we hear so little about it? Something’s got to change here.
The ICO Age Appropriate Design Code comes into effect in September 2021. We’ll be watching closely regards the application of the Code in schools to commercial edTech, and any forthcoming ICO guidance.
We will continue to advocate for legislation enabling schools to manage improved data governance, akin to the U.S. FERPA model but better. For example by reducing the costs of Data Protection Officers repeating risk assessment for the same products, duplicated in every single school in the UK, rather than using shared services with up-to-date expertise in law and technology. We must ensure health and safety product standards are met before companies are granted entry into State education and the lives of millions of children. We can build a rights-respecting environment by giving families more involvement in which technology products are used, how they process children’s data from schools, and why, and at the same time, better ensure schools buy quality products and meet their lawful obligations.
As Nesta recommended in their Educ-AI-tion rebooted 2019 report; “The Government should publicly declare an ambition to create a system of responsible education data sharing by 2030.” We propose the framework how to do it, needs a shared and consistent infrastructure in schools for managing rights and for procurement, to enable safe fair and transparent data for all. An Education and Digital rights Act could be the way of making it happen.
We wish everyone in and beyond the education sector, safe and restful summer holidays.