Parents exploit the law to access information

8th May 2015 at 01:00
Data protection rules open up schools' sensitive papers

Parents are increasingly using data protection rules to obtain sensitive information from schools about their children, legal experts and headteachers have claimed.

Schools are experiencing a rise in complaints from parents, who are becoming savvy in using their legal rights to find out how pupils are being treated.

Yvonne Spencer, a partner at law firm Veale Wasbrough Vizards, told TES that recent requests received by schools included parents of excluded students asking to see their disciplinary records.

Where children had missed out on a place at a school, parents were asking for details about admissions procedures, said Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Others were using the Data Protection Act to try to find out how cases of bullying were being dealt with, he added.

Under the act, parents have a "right of subject access", which means they can ask schools to share records of their child's academic achievements, as well as correspondence from teachers, council employees and educational psychologists.

Ms Spencer said: "We've seen a rise in the number of complex complaints we're handling, and an astuteness [from parents] about complaints procedures."

`A new mindset'

The complaints often referred to instances where parents disagreed with the action taken by schools over issues such as discipline or bullying.

"I think it possibly reflects a change in society's mindset," Ms Spencer said. "[In the past] there was more deference to the educators, and that isn't necessarily there any more."

Mr Lightman said his members had also reported parents becoming increasingly aware of the legal avenues they could take.

The rise was driven in part by schools' increasing use of electronic systems of "information management", he added, which meant that data on pupils was recorded in a much more accessible form than in the past.

"If a pupil has been excluded, their parents may want to see all the things that have been noted down about that pupil over a period of time," Mr Lightman said.

Teachers and school leaders should make sure that, whenever they wrote down information, they did so "in such a way that you would have no problem with anybody seeing it," he added.

One parent, who asked not to be named, told TES that he had used the Data Protection Act during a long complaints process against an independent prep school, after hearing reports that a member of staff had used offensive language in front of pupils.

"I found some amazing information through data protection rules," he said. "Anything they've written about you, nice or horrible, they are required to disclose to you.

"I used a subject access request to ask for information about my name and the names of my wife and my children. It was very successful because [the school] couldn't redact any of it."

But Peter Kent, headteacher of the Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, said that dealing with requests for information could detract from a school's core responsibilities.

"Our primary focus is on education so while of course people have a legal right to access information, inevitably that can divert resources from other things," he said.

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