National Pupil Database? What National Pupil Database? Is my child on it?

At the start of the school year last September 2014, I got the usual A4 pieces of paper. Each of my children’s personal details, our home address and contact details, tick boxes, and a privacy statement at the bottom:

“Data Protection Act 1988: The school is registered under the Data Protection Act for holding personal data. The school has a duty to protect this information and to keep it up to date. The school is required to share some of the data with the Local Authority and with the DfE.”

that was it. There was no mention of the DfE sharing it onwards with anyone else. But they do, because the DfE stores it in the National Pupil Database [NPD] and  it is enormous [1].  It’s a database which holds personal information of every child who has ever been in state education since 2002, some data since 1996. [That includes me as both a student AND a parent.]

“Never heard of it?”

Well neither have I from my school, which is what I pointed out to the DfE in September 2014.

School heads, governors, and every parent I have spoken with in my area and beyond, are totally unaware of the National Pupil database. All are surprised. Some are shocked at the extent of data sharing at such an identifiable and sensitive level, without school and parental knowledge.[2]

I’ve since asked almost fifty more schools. Not one has yet told me that they are aware of the National Pupil Database sharing with third parties or that they tell their pupils and parents about how the Department for Education gives it away.

Here’s a list what it holds. Fully identifiable data at unique, individual level. Tiered from 1-4, where 1 is the most sensitive. A full list of what data is available in each of the tiers and standard extracts can be found in the ‘NPD data tables’.

I’d like to think it has not been deliberately hidden from schools and parents. I hope the government has simply been careless about its communications.

The use of our personal data has drifted at national level towards ever greater access by commercial users.

The UK appears to have gathered admin data for years until the coalition decided it was an asset it could further exploit. The DfE may have told others in 2002 and in 2012 when it shaped policy on how the NPD would be used, but it forgot to tell the children whose information it is and used them without asking.

Knowingly failing to inform schools, pupils and guardians how the most basic of our personal data are used is outdated and out of touch with public feeling. Not to mention, that it fails fair processing under Data Protection law.

Now they know, what will they do about it? 

The Department for Education [DfE] is the data controller for these records and as such has a duty to fairly process them, that is, tell the people whose data they are what happens to their records. The DfE seems to pass the buck to schools, but fails to make schools aware of the National Pupil Database use and range of users. If schools don’t know, they can’t process data properly.

So I wrote to the Department for Education (DfE) in September 2014, including the privacy notice used in schools like ours, showing it fails to inform parents how our children’s personal data and data about us (as related parent/guardians) are stored and onwardly used by the National Pupil Database (NPD). And I asked three questions:

1. I would like to know what information is the minimum you require for an individual child from primary schools in England?

2. Is there an opt out to prevent this sharing and if so, under what process can parents register this?

3. Is there a mechanism for parents to restrict the uses of the data (i.e. opt out our family data) with third parties who get data from the National Pupil Database?

I got back some general information, but no answer to my three questions.

Fair processing fails as Communication is Ineffective

The Department of Education response to me said that it “makes it clear what information is held, why it is held, the uses made of it by DfE and its partners and publishes a statement on its website setting this out. Schools also inform parents and pupils of how the data is used through privacy notices.”

I have told the DfE the process does not work. The DfE / NPD web instructions do not reach parents. Even if they did, information is thoroughly inadequate about commercial third party use of data.

The Department for Education made a web update on 03/07/2015 with privacy information to be made available to parents by schools: http://t.co/PwjN1cwe6r

Despite this update this year, it is inadequate on two counts. In content and communication.

To claim as they did in response to me that: “The Department makes it clear to children and their parents what information is held about pupils and how it is processed, through a statement on its website,” lacks any logic.

Updating their national web page doesn’t create a thorough communications process or engage anyone who does not know about it to start with.

Fair processing means transparently sharing the purpose or purposes for which you intend to process the information, not hiding some of the users through careful wording.

It thereby fails to legally meet the first data protection principle. as parents are not informed at all, never mind fully of further secondary uses.

What would I expect and find reasonable?

As a parent, when I register my child for school, I of course expect that some personal details must be captured to administer their education.

There must be data shared to adequately administer, best serve, understand, and sometimes protect our children.  And bona fide research is in the public interest.

However I have been surprised in the last year to find that firstly, I can’t ask what is stored on my own children and that secondly, a wide range of sensitive data are shared through the Department of Education with third parties.

Some of these potential third parties don’t meet research criteria in my understanding of what a ‘researcher’ should be. Journalists? Tier 1 data?

To improve, there would be little additional time or work burden required to provide proper fair processing as a starting point, but to do so, the department can’t only update a policy on its website and think it’s adequate. And the newly updated suggested text for pupils is only going to add confusion.

It must not omit [as it does now] the full range of potential users.

After all the Data Protection principles state that: “If you wish to use or disclose personal data for a purpose that was not contemplated at the time of collection (and therefore not specified in a privacy notice), you have to consider whether this will be fair.”

Now that it must be obvious to DfE that it is not the best way to carry on, why would they choose NOT to do better? Our children deserve better.

What would better look like? See part 3. The National Pupil Database end of year report: a D in transparency, C minus in security.

*****

[PS: I believe the Freedom of Information Officer tried their best and was professional and polite in our email exchanges, B+. Can’t award an A as I didn’t get any information from my requests. Thank you to them for their effort.]

*****

Updated on Sunday 19th July to include the criteria of my SAR rejection.

1. Our children’s school data: an end of year report card
2. The National Pupil Database end of year report: an F in fair processing
3. The National Pupil Database end of year report: a D in transparency, C minus in security

References:

[1] The National Pupil Database user guide: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/261189/NPD_User_Guide.pdf

[2] The Department for Education has specific legal powers to collect pupil, child and workforce data held by schools, local authorities and awarding bodies under section 114 of the Education Act 2005section 537A of the Education Act 1996, and section 83 of the Children Act 1989. The submission of the school census returns, including a set of named pupil records, is a statutory requirement on schools under Section 537A of the Education Act 1996.

[3] Data tables to see the individual level data items stored and shared (by tabs on the bottom of the file) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-pupil-database-user-guide-andsupporting-information

[4] The table to show who has bought or received data and for what purpose https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-pupil-database-requests-received

[5] Data Trust Deficit – from the RSS: http://www.statslife.org.uk/news/1672-new-rss-research-finds-data-trust-deficit-with-lessons-for-policymakers

[6] Talk by Phil Booth and Terri Dowty: http://www.infiniteideasmachine.com/2013/04/terris-and-my-talk-on-the-national-pupil-database-at-the-open-data-institute/

[7] Presentation given by Paul Sinclair of the Department for Education at the Workshop on Evaluating the Impact of Youth Programmes, 3rd June 2013

 

This is based on a post first published in July 2015, on my personal blog.

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