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Tuesday, 1 January, 2002, 00:21 GMT
Privacy fears over school census
school computer room
The new census is much more than a headcount
A large amount of personal data about individual pupils in England is about to be collected by central government.

Some head teachers and school governors think the new form of the annual school census - due to happen in January - amounts to an invasion of privacy.

The electronically-collected data include pupils' ethnicity and whether or not they have special educational needs, are entitled to free meals, or have been excluded from school.

What is causing most alarm is the requirement to include pupils' full names, along with their home postcodes.

The Department for Education says this information is needed only by technical staff and anything that is passed on to other agencies will be anonymous.

Parents

Previously, the annual 'Form 7' census, as it was known, involved only statistics for a school as a whole - not information about individuals.

excluded pupils
All permanent exclusions are to be recorded
"We feel the data protection implications are immense," said one chair of governors at a primary school.

"I don't think parents realise that this is going to happen.

"Parents at our school would not support us passing on information about their children on a specific, individual basis to an agency who cannot specify to what use such information may subsequently be put."

Supporting policy

Official guidance from the Department for Education about the new Pupil Level Annual Schools' Census (PLASC) say "missing values (i.e. blanks) are not allowed for any data item".

Test data seen by BBC News Online contains the entries: "Surname must not be blank" and "Forename must not be blank".

And the official guidance stresses that schools must comply with the demand for information: "The provision by schools of these individual pupil records is a statutory requirement under section 537A of the Education Act 1996."

Law changed

The Act as originally passed actually prohibited the collection of pupils' names.

Section 537(5) said: "No information provided [by schools] in accordance with regulations under this section shall name any pupil to whom it relates."

But this was amended in 1998 to read: "No information received under or by virtue of this section shall be published in any form which includes the name of the pupil or pupils to whom it relates."

The Department for Education said the names were needed to supplement the "unique pupil numbers" used since the autumn of 1999 to identify every pupil.

A spokeswoman said: "For statistical purposes we need to be able to link together different pieces of information relating to the same pupil but collected at different times."

Accuracy

This would be done mainly through a pupil's unique number, but in "a significant minority of cases" these would be missing or inaccurate.

school office
Electronic collection replaces the old paper census
"Other than the contribution they make to linking pupil records across different data sets, the department will not make any use of pupil names," she said.

"They will be held separately and securely, and accessed only by technical staff involved in the record linking process."

The spokeswoman stressed that there had been widespread consultation on the form of the new census.

The responses had been "overwhelmingly favourable, albeit with a few expressions of concern over perceived threats to pupils' privacy".

Analysis of the records, along with test and exam results, would provide schools, education authorities and central agencies with a far greater range of information.

What is included

Schools have been given additional funds to ensure they have office computers with internet connections to supply the data, via their local education authorities.

School office staff have been on training courses to get to grips with the complexities of the collection software.

It has space for a considerable amount of data.

This includes codes for 16 ethnic groups, and eligibility for free school meals - a sign that parents are on state benefits - and any "former surname", which would imply a change of family circumstances.

Correspondence

The director of education in York City Education Authority, Patrick Scott, said the data that were being collected were specified very precisely by central government.

He was keen to reassure parents that nothing untoward was going on.

"We do keep a lot of information within the LEA about individual pupils anyway," he said.

This included free school meals entitlement and special educational needs, and could involve correspondence with parents who would not want to think of their children as "unique pupil identifiers" rather than named individuals.

"The difficulty is, where do you draw the line in terms of any kind of data which has names on it - some people will object to their names being held by any organisation," he said.

"In my experience the issue is not whether it's held but the use it's put to, and particularly whether it's combined with data from other sources ... for example by other government departments, to discover more than was originally intended."

But he said the Data Protection Act gave people the right to know what was held about them and who had access to it.

See also:

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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