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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 16:55 GMT
School census 'is surveillance'
school assembly
All pupils' names must be given in the census
Parents say the decision by central government to gather detailed personal information about pupils across England is a surveillance operation and breaches the children's human rights.

The new form of the annual school census - which was taking place on Thursday - requires each pupil's full name and their home postcode to be supplied.

It's a surveillance scheme

Terri Dowty, parent
The census - which was being conducted electronically for the first time - also demands details of pupils' ethnicity and whether or not they have special educational needs, are entitled to free meals, or have been excluded from school.

The government says such information will be used, in time, to create individual pupil profiles so that local authorities can offer tailored education programmes.

Anonymity discarded

In previous years, the annual "Form 7" census (as it was known) only required statistics for a school as a whole - not information about individuals.

school office
Electronic collection replaces the old paper census
Parents say the new "Pupil Level Annual Schools' Census" (PLASC) is an invasion of privacy.

But the government says the rights of children will not be affected and the census would help in the drive to raise standards.

Terri Dowty, a parent from London, said a huge step was being taken from an anonymous statistical database to a personalised tracking database.

A similar employment database - compiled by employers behind their employees' backs - would provoke an outcry, said Mrs Dowty.

'Quickly and quietly'

She accused the Department for Education of trivialising parents' concerns about the census.

"We're very concerned that nobody has been consulted - it's been done very quickly and quietly.

The rights of pupils and parents will not be affected by the collection of this new information

Stephen Timms, School Standards Minister
"If it really is harmless, why won't they tell us about it?

"It's a surveillance scheme," said Mrs Dowty, who is also a spokeswoman for the pressure group Arch - Action on Rights for Children in Education.

Mrs Dowty said Arch had been inundated with telephone calls from head teachers.

Many heads felt the census would damage relations between them and parents, as they were providing personal information about children.

Asked if she thought any would speak to BBC News Online about their concerns, Mrs Dowty said: "They're too scared to speak out".

'No interest in identity'

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said the aim of the census was simply to get the clearest picture on what was happening in schools.

"The department has absolutely no interest in the identity of individual pupils and the census data will be used purely for statistical purposes," she said.

Pupil names were being recorded in order to link different sets of data to analyse the achievement levels of ethnic, gender or other groups, the spokeswoman said.

The data would be stored securely, no data would be copied to other organisations without a clear need and data would not be used for marketing purposes or sold to private companies, she added.

Rights 'not affected'

The Minister for School Standards, Stephen Timms, said there was no suggestion of privacy or rights being breached.

"The rights of pupils and parents will not be affected by the collection of this new information.

excluded pupils
The census must record which pupils have been excluded
"We have had extensive discussions with the Information Commissioner and civil liberty organisations to ensure that data protection and privacy issues are fully addressed, and they have been," said Mr Timms.

The census would allow the department to monitor "rigorously" the impact of its education policies on our nation's children.

"For the first time we will be able to see how programmes can be developed and improved to target more effectively the needs of specific groups of children such as ethnic minorities."

The government issued 30m between 2001-2 to make sure all schools had the computer hardware and software needed to complete PLASC.

See also:

01 Jan 02 | Education
Privacy fears over school census
11 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
The problems of protecting privacy
11 Jul 01 | UK
E-privacy complaints soar
26 Feb 01 | Education
Pupils love Manchester United
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