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Big Brother is lurking in the school database

Proposals for Scotland's pupil census in September will invade the privacy of families, says Mary Ann Rose

MY colleague and I recently represented Action on Rights for Children in education (ARCH) at the Big Brother awards ceremony in London. One of these anti-Oscars of the civil rights movement had been awarded to the Department for Education and Skills for its efforts in the 2002 school census in England, which ARCH has opposed as a gross invasion of privacy.

Included in this year's census returns were the name and postcode of every pupil, as well as their UPN (unique pupil number), their ethnicity, whether they receive free school meals and their educational records, all as a statutory requirement of schools. The information was supplied without the consent of pupils or parents.

The Department for Education has been modest about its work; such is the level of publicity it has sought that most people remain unaware that this information about them and their children is now logged on its central database, and available for sharing with any number of other agencies, both internal and external, at the discretion of the Secretary of State.

What has this to do with Scotland? The plans for Scotland's school census were published last week ( pagesnews200203SE5463.aspx) and mirror the recent English census so accurately that one wonders if devolution was but a dream.

Wales, incidentally, escaped with just a pilot version of the census this year, as many schools in the principality are still not equipped with the right technology to return forms electronically. They soon will be, for the Department for Education does not plan to repeat this method of data collection. Rather, it is envisaged that the statutory details will be extracted directly from the schools' computers without intruding upon the time of any member of staff, let alone informing the pupils or their parents.

The newsspeak of the Department for Education and the Scottish Executive says that the information will enhance the education of individuals. More than investing in more teachers, school buildings and basic resources like pens and paper? Comprehension of this explanation requires an exercise in double-think.

In England, the erstwhile careers service, now renamed Connexions, will have its own central database, and the legislation in place allows school census information to be passed directly to it - and to the private companies which run the scheme. North of the border, Careers Scotland will replace the careers service companies next month. The vision is almost indistinguishable from that of Connexions, except that in Scotland the service is intended to cover all age groups whereas its English cousin is restricted to 13-19s.

The school census provides all the information needed to create a national identity and tracking database. Both schemes issue "smart cards", which double as library cards, public transport discount cards, electronic registration for attendance at educational centres and so on, and which will also monitor students' movements. The incentive to sign up for a "smart card" comes in the form of discounts on anything from a burger to a pair of trainers or a course of driving lessons. Naturally, consumer information will provide manufacturing companies with details of potential markets.

In reply to the question, "If you were Big Brother and wanted to create a surveillance society, where would you begin?", Andre Bacard, author of The Computer Privacy Handbook, replied: "I would start by creating dossiers on kindergarten children so that the next generation could not comprehend a world without surveillance."

We are constantly subjected to surveillance; our children are growing up with it, and adults have ceased to question it. When I told a teaching friend about the school census, he shrugged and replied: "They know all about us anyway".

Complacency or "re-education"? Evil, it is said, thrives because good men do nothing. "If you want a vision of the future," George Orwell wrote, "imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever."

That vision lives on in two-foot high, gold-sprayed papier mache trophies, the Big Brother Awards, given each year to the organisations judged most deserving. Scotland has six months to get used to the vision. For England it is too late. The clocks are already striking 13.

Mary Ann Rose is chair of Action on Rights for Children in education.

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