COMPANIES hope to get their hands on commercially-valuable data about nearly every 16 to 19-year-old in England as part of the Government's Connexions card scheme.
The card offers enticements to students to participate in education by rewarding them with points for attendance and attainment which can be redeemed for discounts on CDs, clothes and other products and services aimed at young people.
Students could become the targets of direct mail selling anything from clothes to financial services, as the card's commercial backers are provided with information about the consumer preferences of each cardholder. The commercial aspect of the scheme has been met with dismay by youth workers. "We don't want young people being invaded with messages which say they should want the latest designer wear," said Doug Nicholls, general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers Union. "This should be about the real entitlements of young people, not just seeing them as passive consumers. Is this scheme about encouraging young people to take part in education or is it about encouraging them to spend money?" Cardholders will have access to a website, which includes details of goods and services on which they can spend their points. The marketing information about cardholders is collected by monitoring which bits of the website they are looking at.
"We have been talking to a number of companies," said a spokeswoman for Capita, which has the Government contract to introduce the cards on behalf of Connexions. "What is in it for them is the opportunity of seeing what these young people take up. They can be a very difficult group to reach."
Potential commercial partners which have been in talks with Capita include National Express, PlayStation Magazine, West Ham football club, McDonalds and BSM driving schools.
She stressed cardholders can "opt out" of allowing companies to see this information, as required under the Data Protection Act, although this is likely to lead to the loss of some or all of the discounts being offered.
The Department for Education and Skills says the cardholders will be made aware of their right to have personal information kept private.
"We take data protection issues very seriously," said a DFES spokesman. "The rights of young people will be rigorously upheld. A privacy statement will be on the back of the application form, and young people will have the contents brought to their attention several times in the process of applying for a card. They will be explicitly asked to give their consent for their data to be used."
It is planned that all 16 to 19-year-old will get the cards, whether or not they are in education or training. A budget of pound;100 million has been set aside by the DFES to put 2.4 million cards in circulation.
The card has been piloted in more than 100 schools and colleges and 35,000 young people are already trying them out.
The card will start being introduced in the North-east from the autumn and then, from January, in the North-west, Yorkshire and Humberside, the East Midlands, the East and the South-west.
From May 2002, it comes to London, the South-east and the West Midlands. "I would hope the Government would not allow information to be used by companies in a way which isn't appropriate," said Paul Convery, of the National Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion.