Does your national school record reveal your sexual orientation or religion?
news / April 2, 2023
What’s the story?
New figures released by the Department for Education, show that the UK government department holds the self-declared sexual orientation on the named records of millions of people in a national database; but our research with students and of the submission forms shows, that the students don’t know it. Nowhere publicly clearly explains to students or HE staff, how the data is kept, passed around, or how it is used after its collection.
Equality is now monitored in the UK Higher Education student population by collecting data about sexual orientation, as well as disabilities and religion. We believe how these processes operate in practice in the higher education sector must change urgently. Because instead of creating statistics, these highly sensitive information are being added into existing named records, and kept forever. Misused, or used in unexpected ways, such data can have serious consequences for students and staff life.
We recently asked the Department for Education to provide up-to-date figures for England after we first discovered they hold this sensitive data in 2019 when the first Data Protection Impact Assessment was carried out of the database and published, and was reported by Buzzfeed news. Today, the UK government department holds a growing list of millions of students who have submitted their sexual orientation and religious affiliation as part of equality monitoring when applying for Higher Education.
The declared sexual orientation of 3,213,683 is held in the National Pupil Database (in a total of around 23 million records) and broken down as below. The religious affiliation of 3,572,489 people is held (give or take some duplicates and issues in the data quality). Our research shows most people have never heard of the National Pupil Database, never mind know they have a record or how it is re-used.
Want to take action and find out more?
If you, or students you know are in education today or are aged under 45, their named records are likely held. Find out. You can make a subject access request to check what is held on you (or your dependents) via this DfE website and government form “subject access request” https://form.education.gov.uk/service/Contact_the_Department_for_Education via https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-education/about/personal-information-charter.
You can also email your MP to call for change, and from our #MyRecordsMyRights page also find more about the steps how to find out what’s in your own records. Just make the email you send, personal from you about this issue.
What must change
Why is this data collected, retained and above all “linked” with individually named, highly detailed lifelong school records, at all? Why is it not only collected and kept as stand-alone statistics to achieve the same aims? How widely spread is it across UCAS, Higher Education institutions, the Office for Students, and Higher Education Funding bodies? Is data used to do anything meaningful given that the majority of categories are still substantially ‘not provided’ or ‘refused’ even if putting something in the field is mandatory.
Staff Equality Monitoring details too are kept on an individual and identifiable basis, and while collected with unique IDs and not named at that point, with or without names especially if linked with other datasets, they are just as identifying.
We believe that these records must be destroyed at named and individual levels; and at most, only statistical outputs should be processed, accessed, or retained, and no raw identifying data should be passed around at all from the point of collection. Dealing in data through downloads and distribution, increases risk to both people and institutions, and is long out of date practice. It’s not necessary and can be done differently.
How many UK students or staff will one day live and work in Uganda is not the only question of potential for real harm here. It’s far from publicly clear how the data are used at all today, or could be in future.
There is an opportunity in the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill before Parliament in summer 2023 to right this wrong. And for example, the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 might be amended to reference only statistical data in a number of places where it demands data sharing on “equality of opportunity” in connection with access to and participation in higher education provided by English higher education providers.
What’s the background?
Recently Uganda’s parliament passed a law that criminalises identifying as LGBTQ+. It sounded like social norms we may take for granted in the UK had taken a step back in time.
In Germany gay men were among the millions persecuted between 1933 and 1945, and the Stasi kept miles-long archives of index cards maintained until 1989 in Berlin, including records with sexual orientation listed on individuals. The 1934 law adopted under Josef Stalin that sent gay men to prison or labour camps was only repealed in Russia in 1993. That state-of-law lasted only twenty years until Russia reintroduced authoritarian rules in 2013, and which it expanded again, last year.
But in the UK, it is less than twenty years ago that here too, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, was repealed in 2003 and shockingly recent that ‘private homosexual acts’ were decriminalised.
Appreciating what is going on today and the harms throughout history, may help explain why it matters in places around the world, for the State to know what you say when asked to declare your sexual orientation. In some places, that information is dangerous to life, or worth blackmail. Trust alone is simply not safe enough to rely on, or to take for granted that such information will only be used for good. If the information is kept digitally and it can be accessed, potentially it could be distributed anywhere, across borders, in ways people might not authorise or expect.
This page was last updated on June 1, 2023.
Information provided via FOI from the Department for Education. (March 2023)
Original source: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/pupil_data_religion_and_sexual_o#incoming-2262183
The process background
The Department for Education receives these variables from JISC (formally HESA) as part of the student records and these are linked by the DfE via RM Education into the National Pupil Database (NPD) which began ten years ago, in the 2012/13 academic year.
JISC/HESA has requested the “Religion or belief’ and “Sexual orientation” of students enrolled in higher education since the 2012/13 academic year with its stated purpose of allowing the UK governments to monitor equal opportunities issues in the higher education sector and support higher education providers (HEPs) in meeting their obligations under the Equality Act 2010.
A further review of personal characteristics and equality data requested from higher education providers was coordinated by JISC/HESA in preparation for the far more recent ‘Student – Data Futures’ data collection.
The process is likely to expand this year without students being informed. From the 2022/23 academic year, JISC/HESA will collect named data on ‘Religious background’ and ‘Sexual Orientation’ from all UK higher education providers as part of Data Futures, as well new optional fields from students and staff in Scotland only to identify “transgender” on named or uniquely identifying records, respectively, while the fields ‘Gender ID’ remain mandatory for providers in England and Wales.
Caution: Because the data are voluntary, the numbers are not indicative of anything other than what has been volunteered and has been kept by the DfE since 2012.
Declared sexual orientation
For records held in the DfE NPD (i.e. relating to students who went to schools in England), the number of distinct individuals (based on the HESA unique student identifier) with a declared sexual orientation (i.e. where variable SEXORT is not blank, NULL or refused) = 3,213,683 in the database total of around 23 million people. This covers data from the 2012/13 to 2020/21 academic years (inclusive).
These can be broken down into the following sexual orientations as follows:
01 Bisexual 151,771
02 Gay man 54,458
03 Gay woman/lesbian 34,371
04 Heterosexual 2,952,223
05 Other 62,193
The same issues with methodology apply as above.
These fields are not available for third party requests for JISC/HESA data linked to NPD and, as such, these fields have not been shared externally with any organisation (according to the DfE). The only exception to this is sharing with RM Education who, during this period, have been contracted as the Department’s data processor for the purpose of matching to the NPD.
For records held in the DfE NPD (i.e. relating to students who went to schools in England), the number of distinct individuals (based on the HESA unique student identifier) with a declared religion or belief (i.e. where variable RELBLF is not blank, NULL, refused or not known) = 3,572,489. This covers data from the 2012/13 to 2020/21 academic years (inclusive).
These can be broken down into the following religions or beliefs as follows:
01 No religion 1,851,100
02 Buddhist 31,573
03 Christian 1,101,794
04 Christian – Church of Scotland 3,174
05 Christian – Roman Catholic 35,993
06 Christian – Presbyterian Church in Ireland 2,526
07 Christian – Church of Ireland 1,440
08 Christian – Methodist Church in Ireland 357
09 Christian – Other denomination 26,486
10 Hindu 71,191
11 Jewish 19,017
12 Muslim 357, 513
13 Sikh 39,749
14 Spiritual 56,222
80 Any other religion or belief 69,596
The data comes with many caveats most notably that since the data is voluntary, it is not complete and cannot be said to be an accurate measure of anything. Plus a methodology note: the sum of the individual religions or beliefs will exceed the total number of distinct individuals due to situations where individuals have declared a different value for RELBLF across different years (Ed. this seems a bit odd in terms of how the fields report but hey ho).