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General Election 2024: scrutinising party plans on digital and education

Regarding education, key issues being discussed on the campaign trail from the Conservatives, to Greens to Labour and the Lib Dems, are not digital. However there are important commitments on data, digital  and ID more broadly, and indicators of the intended directions of travel.

So far, party manifestos have promised more datafication and state surveillance for school-age children, from Labour’s new unique ID to be assigned to every child, and both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats proposing a register of children not-in-school.

The Lib Dems are the only party that has promised to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, into UK law. The Lib Dems’ manifesto also offers a broader range of digital and data relevant commitments (p.94) as well as a pledge on, “properly funded programme of high-quality professional development for all teachers.” Their manifesto describes plans to introduce a general duty of care for the environment and human rights in business operations and supply chains. (p.63). It has comments on algorithms and AI used by the state (p.100), and pledges on AI to “create a clear, workable and well-resourced cross-sectoral regulatory framework for artificial intelligence that:

  • Promotes innovation while creating certainty for AI users, developers and
  • Establishes transparency and accountability for AI systems in the public sector;
  • Ensures the use of personal data and AI is unbiased, transparent and
    accurate, and respects the privacy of innocent people.”

The Lib Dems pledge to scrap the Conservatives’ voter ID scheme and

  • “Introduce a Digital Bill of Rights to protect everyone’s rights online, including the rights to privacy, free expression, and participation without being subjected to harassment and abuse;
  • End the bulk collection of communications data and internet connection records;
  • Introduce a legally binding regulatory framework for all forms of biometric surveillance.”

The Greens too, commit to a Digital Bill of Rights to “give the public greater control over their data” (p.38). The Greens also pledge to scrap the Conservatives’ voter ID scheme and also propose amending the Online Safety Act to, “protect democracy, and prevent political debate from being manipulated by falsehoods, fakes and half-truths.” (p.33) There is no detail on how. But they go further and intend to, “protect and advance the cornerstones of our democracy such as human rights law.” They are the party that includes the most detail on Artificial Intelligence policy. “Elected Greens will push for a precautionary regulatory approach to the harms and risk of AI. We would align the UK approach with our neighbours in Europe, UNESCO and global efforts to support a coordinated response to future risks of AI. We will also aim to secure equitable access to any socially and environmentally responsible benefits these technologies can bring, at the same time as addressing any bias, discrimination, equality, liberty or privacy issues arising from the use of AI. We would insist on the protection of the Intellectual Property of artists, writers and musicians and other creators. We would ensure that AI does not erode the value of human creativity and that workers’ rights and interests are respected when AI leads to significant changes in working conditions.” (p.38) The Greens would also scrap Prevent (p.34), a policy we at Defend Digital Me recognise as extremely problematic in safeguarding-in-schools systems.

The Conservatives pledge access to a digital red book (p.41) (children’s health records from birth) which exists already and is compulsory to offer parents, but is not compulsory to use. Its early build on Microsoft HealthVault and co-relationship with Sitekit and various other controllers since, is hard to follow today. Research about using the e-red book, as explained in 2015 by Dr. Alison M. Devlin, Research Associate at the DALLAS project, found mothers in some of the poorest areas of Glasgow could not access the app, due to the prohibitive cost of data. Not addressing these real and long-known issues, wilfully ignores the risk that a more digital-first NHS may further exacerbate the inverse care law through digital exclusion. The Conservatives also say they will, “put our guidance on banning mobile phones in the school day on a statutory footing which will require all schools to operate a ban.” They will, “consult on introducing further parental controls over access to social media”. What that would look like remains undefined, but they go on to say, “We know this is a complex area and we need more effective age verification and parental controls.” Their recognition that the number of children suffering from mental illness is rising dramatically (p.19), only in the context of social media, seems a little insincere and more than a little bit ‘finger-pointing’, given the government has in effect abdicated responsibility for meeting CAMHS needs in the last decade. Public health funding, which funds school nurses and public mental health services, has been among the areas of cuts. Councils have seen a £770m real terms reduction in funding between 2014/15 and 2020/21 – a fall of almost a quarter (22.3 per cent) per person, according to the LGA. The Tories search plans for “more effective age verification and parental controls” are as vague as in the online safety debate to date, where they have repeatedly called for more “controls” when in government but demonstrate a lack of grounding in the reality of the functionality of technology. Just this week Australia has made changes to its plans to compel companies to carry out mass surveillance of communications, as that reality caught up down under.

Labour’s manifesto mentions consular assistance in cases of human rights violations for Brits abroad, but there is no mention of human rights for here at home. Artificial Intelligence is seen as part of Labour’s industrial strategy, including the removal of planning barriers to new datacentres. A “National Data Library to bring together existing research programmes and help deliver data-driven public services”, is hard to tell apart from existing data lakes and linkage programmes. But other plans include some new infrastructure and regulation. A new Regulatory Innovation Office, “ensuring the safe development and use of AI models by introducing binding regulation on the handful of companies developing the most powerful AI models”; and a ban on the creation of sexually explicit deepfakes.

Key for the public and education sector, Labour not only keeps voter ID but also frames a plan to create yet another ID, a new unique pupil number (p.81), as a safeguarding matter, saying, “we see families falling through the cracks of public services. Labour will improve data sharing across services, with a single unique identifier, to better support children and families.” The “cracks” are indeed many, but children already have a Unique Pupil Number, and a Unique Learner Number, and several other numbers none of which solve problems and yet another one won’t either by just creating ‘more data’ instead of the professionals trusted and funded to work together with appropriate accountability for information sharing and caseloads. The Munro Review identified many of these topics in 2011. In 2022, we opposed the creation of a new register of children-not-in-school powers drafted in the doomed Schools Bill for many reasons, not least because it is well recognised as pushing the very children it intends to help — (a marginalised minority) — further away from services, and therefore from the very state surveillance that the policy is supposed to bring. The Welsh government identified also this unintended consequence in its own 2024 consultation on extracting health records to create a list of children not in state schooling. We drew attention to the concerns we have in 2022 with

  • (a) the accuracy of debate around counting children who are out of school in numbers used by the Department for Education and its arms length bodies;
  • (b) the conflation of different characteristics of children out of school for different reasons that creates misleading narratives and associated inferences; and
  • (c) the related proposals for the collection of more children’s data in a new national database or ID in order “to find them all”.

We have carried out our own research with Local Authorities to better understand these questions since mid 2021. Here is a long read for reference, to clarify how the government, local and national, already IDs and numbers children outside of schools in England. An ID assigned to a child rapidly becomes an adult ID, at most 18 years later and it will take some explaining to assure us that this is not a return of the National ID proposals by the back door, especially since it’s been part of some in Labour’s team campaigning for some time already, but inconsistently as they did in 2022, and in 2024 we’ve seen the same old arguments repeated.

And what about a manifesto from Defend Digital Me? As we set out in our own proposals, instead of yet more datafication, we must empower children and families in and beyond educational settings to understand what their digital life looks like to the State and how 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.

Some manifestos include intentions to better support human rights and digital rights, more than others. Some do the opposite. None yet delivers any vision for how digital fits into the provision of safe, transparent and fair systems delivering quality education. We have ideas that could help build that.