The National Pupil Database end of year report: an F in Fair Processing

National Pupil Database? What National Pupil Database? Why am I 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 for method of transport each used to get to school, types of school meal eaten all listed, 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.”

There was no mention of the DfE sharing it onwards with anyone else. But they do, through 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 horrified at the extent of data sharing at such an identifiable and sensitive level, without school and parental knowledge.[2]

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’.

K5

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

Imagine that the data once gathered only for administration since 1996, was then decided about at central level and they forgot to tell the people whom they should have been asking. The data controllers and subjects the data were from – the schools, parents/guardians and pupils – were forgotten. That could happen when you see data as a commodity and not as people’ s personal histories.

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. In my book, that’s an abuse of power and misuse of data.

It seems to me that current data policies in practice across all areas of government have simply drifted at national level towards ever greater access by commercial users.

And although that stinks, it has perhaps arisen from lack of public transparency and appropriate oversight, rather than some nefarious intent.

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.

Subject Access Request – User experience gets an ‘F’ for failing

The submission of the school census, including a set of named pupil records, is a statutory requirement on schools.

This means that children and parents data, regardless of how well or poorly informed they may be, are extracted for administrative purposes, and are used in addition to those we would expect, for various secondary reasons.

Unless the Department for Education makes schools aware of the National Pupil Database use and users, the Department fails to provide an adequate process to enable schools to meet their local data protection requirements. 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.

What data do you hold and share with third parties about my children?

In April 2015 I decided to find out exactly what data they held, so I made a subject access request [SAR], expecting to see the data they held about my children. They directed me to ask my children’s school instead and to ask for their educational record. The difficulty with that is, it’s a different dataset.

My school is not the data controller of the National Pupil Database. I am not asking for a copy of my children’s educational records held by the school, but what information that the NPD holds about me and my children. One set of data may feed the other but they are separately managed. The NPD is the data controller for that data it holds and as such I believe has data controller responsibility for it, not the school they attend.

Why do I care? Well for starters, I want to know if the data are accurate.  And I want to know who else has access to it and for what purposes – school can’t tell me that. They certainly couldn’t two months ago, as they had no idea the NPD existed.

I went on to ask the DfE for a copy of the publicly accessible subject access request (SAR) policy and procedures, aware that I was asking on behalf of my children. I couldn’t find any guidance, so asked for the SAR policy. They helpfully provided some advice, but I was then told:

“The department does not have a publicly accessible standard SAR policy and procedures document.”  and “there is not an expectation that NPD data be made available for release in response to a SAR.”

It seems policies are inconsistent. For this other DfE project, there is information about the database, how participants can opt out and  respecting your choice. On the DfE website a Personal Information Charter sets out “what you can expect when we ask for and hold your personal information.”

It says: “Under the terms of the Data Protection Act 1998, you’re entitled to ask us:

  • if we’re processing your personal data
  • to give you a description of the data we hold about you, the reasons why we’re holding it and any recipient we may disclose it to (eg Ofsted)
  • for a copy of your personal data and any details of its source

You’re also entitled to ask us to change the information we hold about you, if it is wrong.

To ask to see your personal data (make a ‘subject access request’), or to ask for clarification about our processing of your personal data, contact us via the question option on our contact form and select ‘other’.”

So I did. But it seems while it applies to that project,  Subject Access Request is not to apply to the data they hold in the NPD. And they finally rejected my request last week, stating it is exempt:

SAR_reject

I appealed the decision on the basis that the section 33 Data Protection Act criteria given, are not met:

“the data subject was made fully aware of the use(s) of their personal data (in the form of a privacy notice)”

But it remains rejected.

It seems incomprehensible that third parties can access my children’s data and I can’t even check to see if it is correct.

While acknowledging section 7 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) “an individual has the right to ask an organisation to provide them with information they hold which identifies them and, in certain circumstances, a parent can make such a request on behalf of a child” they refused citing the Research, History and Statistics exemption (i.e. section 33(4) of the DPA).

Fair processing, another F for failure and F for attitude

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 and either deliberately hides or does so by omission, the 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.

Secondly, the new privacy policy is inadequate in it content and utterly confusing. What does this statement mean, is there now some sort of opt out on offer? I doubt it, but it is unclear:

“A parent/guardian can ask that no information apart from their child’s name, address and date of birth be passed to [insert name of local authority or the provider of Youth Support Services in your area] by informing [insert name of school administrator]. This right is transferred to the child once he/she reaches the age 16. For more information about services for young people, please go to our local authority website [insert link].” [updated privacy statement, July 3, 2015]

Information that I don’t know exists, about a database I don’t know exists, that my school does not know exists, they believe meets fair processing through a statement on its own website?

Appropriate at this time of year,  I have to ask, “you cannot be serious?”

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.

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? the MOD?

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.

The privacy policy text needs carefully reworded in human not civil service speak.

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

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