The Department for Education in England and Wales [DfE] has lost control of who can access our children’s identifiable school records by giving individual and sensitive personal data out to a range of third parties, since government changed policy in 2012. It looks now like they’re panicking how to fix it.
Applicants wanting children’s personal identifiable and/or sensitive data now need to first apply for the lowest level criminal record check, DBS, in the access process, to the National Pupil Database.
At first glance, it sound like a great idea, but what real difference will this make to who can receive 8 million school pupils’ data?
Yes, you did read that right.
The National Pupil Database gives away the personal data of eight million children, aged 2-19. Gives it away outside its own protection, because users get sent raw data, to their own desks.
It would be good to know people receiving your child’s data hadn’t ever been cautioned or convicted about something related to children in their past, right?
Unfortunately, this DBS check won’t tell the the Department for Education (DfE) that – because it’s the the basic £25 DBS check , not full version.
So this change seems less about keeping children’s personal data safe than being seen to do something. Anything. Anything but the thing that needs done. Which is to keep the data secure.
Why is this not a brilliant solution?
Moving towards the principle of keeping the data more secure is right, but in practice, the DBS check is only useful if it would make data safe by stopping people receiving data and the risks associated with data misuse. So how will this DBS check achieve this? It’s not designed for people who handle data. It’s designed for people working with children.
There is plenty of evidence available of data inappropriately used for commercial purposes often in the news, and often through inappropriate storage and sharing of data as well as malicious breaches. I am not aware, and refer to this paper , of risks realised through malicious data misuse of data for academic purposes in safe settings. Though mistakes do happen through inappropriate processes, and through human error and misjudgement.
However it is not necessary to have a background check for its own sake. It is necessary to know that any users handle children’s data securely and appropriately, and with transparent oversight. There is no suggestion at all that people at TalkTalk are abusing data, but their customers’ data were not secure and those data held in trust are now being misused.
That risk is the harm that is likely to affect a high number of individuals if bulk personal data are not securely managed. Measures to make it so must be proportionate to that risk. 
Coming back to what this will mean for individual applicants and its purpose: Basic Disclosure contains only convictions considered unspent under The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. 
The absence of a criminal record does not mean data are securely stored or appropriately used by the recipient.
The absence of a criminal record does not mean data will not be forwarded to another undisclosed recipient and there be a way for the DfE to ever know it happened.
The absence of a criminal record showing up on the basic DBS check does not even prove that the person has no previous conviction related to misuse of people or of data. And anything you might consider ‘relevant’ to children for example, may have expired.
So for these reasons, I disagree that the decision to have a basic DBS check is worthwhile. Why? Because it’s effectively meaningless and doesn’t solve the problem which is this:
Anyone can apply for 8m children’s personal data, and as long as they meet some purposes and application criteria, they get sent sensitive and identifiable children’s data to their own setting. And they do. 
Anyone the 2009 designed legislation has defined as a prescribed person or researcher, has come to mean journalists for example. Like BBC Newsnight, or Fleet Street papers. Is it right journalists can access my children’s data, but as pupils and parents we cannot, and we’re not even informed? Clearly not.
It would be foolish to be reassured by this DBS check. The DfE is kidding themselves if they think this is a workable or useful solution.
This step is simply a tick box and it won’t stop the DfE regularly giving away the records of eight million children’s individual level and sensitive data.
What problem is this trying to solve and how will it achieve it?
Before panicking to implement a change DfE should first answer:
- who will administer and store potentially sensitive records of criminal convictions, even if unrelated to data?
- what implications does this have for other government departments handling individual personal data?
- why are 8m children’s personal and sensitive data given away ‘into the wild’ beyond DfE oversight in the first place?
Until the DfE properly controls the individual personal data flowing out from NPD, from multiple locations, in raw form, and its governance, it makes little material difference whether the named user is shown to have, or not have a previous criminal record.  Because the DfE has no idea if they are they only person who uses it.
The last line from DfE in the article is interesting: “it is entirely right that we we continue to make sure that those who have access to it have undergone the necessary background checks.”
Continue from not doing it before? Tantamount to a denial of change, to avoid scrutiny of the past and status quo? They have no idea who has “access” to our children’s data today after they have released it, except on paper and trust, as there’s no audit process.
If this is an indicator of the transparency and type of wording the DfE wants to use to communicate to schools, parents and pupils I am concerned. Instead we need to see full transparency, assessment of privacy impact and a public consultation of coordinated changes.
Further, if I were an applicant, I’d be concerned that DfE is currently handling sensitive pupil data poorly, and wants to collect more of mine.
In summary: because of change in Government policy in 2012 and the way in which it is carried out in practice, the Department for Education in England and Wales [DfE] has lost control of who can access our 8m children’s identifiable school records. Our children deserve proper control of their personal data and proper communication about who can access that and why.
Discovering through FOI  the sensitivity level and volume of identifiable data access journalists are being given, shocked me. Discovering that schools and parents have no idea about it, did not.
This is what must change.
If you have questions or concerns about the National Pupil Database or your own experience, or your child’s data used in schools, please feel free to get in touch, and let’s see if we can make this better to use our data well, with informed public support and public engagement.
 National Pupil Database: How to apply: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-pupil-database-apply-for-a-data-extract
 Which third parties have received data since 2012 (Tier 1 and 2 identifiable, individual and/or sensitive): release register https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ national-pupil-database-requests-received
 The Basic statement content http://www.disclosurescotland.co.uk/disclosureinformation/index.htm
 Effective Researcher management: 2009 T. Desai (London School of Economics) and F. Ritchie (Office for National Statistics), United Kingdom http://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/stats/documents/ece/ces/ge.46/2009/wp.15.e.pdf
 TalkTalk is not the only recent significant data breach of public trust. An online pharmacy that sold details of more than 20,000 customers to marketing companies has been fined £130,000 https://ico.org.uk/action-weve-taken/enforcement/pharmacy2u-ltd/
 Guidance on rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/
 the August 2014 NPD application from BBC Newsnight https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/293030/response/723407/attach/10/BBC%20Newsnight.pdf
 CPS Guidelines for offences involving children https://www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Final_Sexual_Offences_Definitive_Guideline_content_web1.pdf
 #saveFOI – I found out exactly how many requests had been fast tracked and not scrutinised by the data panel via a Freedom of Information Request, as well as which fields journalists were getting access to. The importance of public access to this kind of information is a reason to stand up for FOI http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/press-gazette-launches-petition-stop-charges-foi-requests-which-would-be-tax-journalism