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Manifesto Proposals for Education and the Digital Environment

When policy makers focus on issues of the day there is excessive time spent on arguing for a pecking order that trades off children’s protection, participation and privacy online. In doing so, they can forget the purposes of pedagogy and learning in the digital environment. There is a DfE strategy on edTech but it’s all about the technology, companies and exports. While those are important, there is no parallel vision for a long-term consistent approach for children in the digital environment in education. We offer ours, based on the prioritisation of people, not products first.

It includes three things to start for all learners through change of policy, with legislative underpinning in an Education and Digital Rights Act—

  1. A family opt-in/out of today’s commercial reuses of national pupil records;
  2. Student equality monitoring must be kept only as statistics not named data at the DfE;
  3. A National Digital Office responsible for quality, standards, and support for schools and families.

The UNCRC General Comment No. 25 (2021) on children’s rights in the digital environment offers broad guidance. We offer recommendations for education, after five years of research mapping data flows into, across, and out of the state education system (2015-20), special focus on emerging applications using biometrics in schools, and all our engagement since with the UK industry sector, schools, and international efforts at the Council of Europe on AI, and data protection in the Convention 108.

The digital environment shapes children’s lives in many ways, creating opportunities and risks to their well-being and enjoyment of human rights.

This applies in every day life but also increasingly in education settings where tools designed for scoring and safeguarding, the administration and assessment of children, and their behavioural management, are deployed without staff always being aware of the challenges to children’s private life and personal data protection. Schools are small and at increasing risk to new security threats. They have not got the capacity or time that big vendors have, to manage the due diligence needed to understand terms and conditions of contracts. This puts them, and therefore their school community, at great disadvantage in the trade that happens between schools and companies for access to services. It also creates great power for companies to influence how and what education is delivered across the country, and the world.

Access to education is a right championed in the first clause of the UN Declaration of Human Rights Article 26, but its aims in the second clause, are less often remembered:

“Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”

In the call for a safe digital environment, we must ensure to champion a broad human rights’ respecting environment, offline and online, in which rights are indivisible and interdependent. Respect for human dignity should be the minimum standard that children and families expect from their educational settings, championing the aims of education in a democratic society, underpinned by the inclusive and equitable principles of accessibility, acceptability and adaptability to the needs of every child.

We must empower children and families to exercise their rights and principles in data protection within a clear framework of the law. We need a strong social contract between families and the state to ensure a safe, fair and transparent data infrastructure and trustworthy data governance. Some of this foundation already exists in school information management systems, and can be built on with the cooperation and collaboration of industry intermediaries, and education technology companies.

We also need a trustworthy digital environment for school staff as employers and employees. The sector needs support to manage recruitment and retention as never before. Digital literacy and digital citizenship skills and training are now vital competencies for all, not an add-on for pupils taking computing or ICT classes.

Children cannot put their education on pause, while policy makers get this right. Now is the time for all politicians to make commitments to education, fit for the future. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and discussing it across the sector. We hope the next government will put it into action.