Senseless census strikes back

5th February 2010 at 00:00

Last summer, Secretary Sandra asked me to have a look at a staffing census, sent by the local education authority, that we were supposed to complete online. For every person working in the school, there were eight screens of questions, and although Sandra is deadly efficient at filling in forms, she feared that she might grow old and die before completing this one.

What's more, the census was exceptionally invasive, even asking the make, colour and registration number of staff cars. There were amusingly ridiculous bits, too. One page asked the sex of the staff member and there were three tick boxes: one for "male", one for "female", and one for "don't know". I told Sandra not to waste her time and I phoned the local authority to ask why it had been sent. After all, essential information about staff was already held in files or folders, securely locked away.

"Don't blame us," said the local authority's data man. "It was sent by the DCSF. Ignore the bits about staff cars and just fill in the rest."

Frankly, I wasn't prepared to fill in any of it until somebody gave me a good reason for doing so, and I wondered if the DCSF could provide one. Initially, all knowledge of the census was denied. Then, when the local authority insisted it had emanated from the department, it changed tack.

"Ah, that census. Yes, but we didn't add the car questions. That must have been done by the software firm." We checked. It hadn't, and the DCSF was contacted again. "Ah, right ... well, the school must have added those bits on."

It was becoming more outrageous by the moment, so sparing a sympathetic thought for admin officers up and down the country who would be slaving away on it unquestioningly, I told both the local authority and the DCSF I would simply ignore it. I heard nothing more and that, I thought, was that.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, a phone call from the local authority, asking Sandra how the census was coming along. Immediately, I sent an email reminding the officer about our conversation and saying I was happy to comply with anything sensible or useful, but this was neither, so could he please ask the DCSF to explain the purpose of all these questions. The response from the department was so mind-numbingly incomprehensible that I can't resist sharing a smidgen of it with you ...

"Strategic support data will provide information to support existing policies and develop better evidence-based policies relating to the school workforce such as workforce planning and development. The aggregated data will enable profiles to be produced disaggregated by gender, ethnicity and role."

Well, I'm sure headteachers will find all that pretty damn useful while they're struggling to find money for repairing the toilets, investigating why the infants keep throwing their school cutlery away with their lunch leftovers, and trying to "include" Charlie, extreme special needs, into Mrs Smith's class of 30.

Even the friendly local authority officer had a struggle justifying the collection of so much data. He said it would help to provide schools with comparisons in staff turnover, service length, salaries and staff qualifications, so that heads and governors could make informed decisions. About what, though, he didn't say. Frankly, knowing that the school up the road has 10 vacancies and a head earning a fortune is of no interest to me. It's probably a rotten school.

I suppose it's all part of the drive to ensure schools keep a "single central record", with the tiniest detail about every person scrupulously recorded. Well, it makes me very unhappy. And I seem to recall that laptops and CDs containing highly confidential information have a habit of getting left in cabs and trains ...

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, South London. Email:

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