State-held pupil files under fire

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
Government set to issue all children with identity numbers from next month. Mark Jackson reports.

Government plans to keep a lifelong confidential computer file on every pupil in the country have been attacked by the data protection watchdog which has told ministers to drop the idea.

Under plans released for consultation shortly before Christmas, schools will be required to feed details of children's attainment, behaviour, special needs and social and ethnic background into a central Department for Education and Employment computer. All pupils will be given an identity number.

The DFEE wants pilot schools to start transmitting information via the Internet by the start of next year. Ministers say the scheme is necessary for judging the "value added" by individual schools.

But headteachers have joined the Data Protection Registrar in claiming that the plans are a threat to civil liberty.

The Registrar's uncompromising advice is that the Government should scrap the proposals. Assistant registrar Jonathan Bamford told The TES: "We understand the objectives, but we do not accept that they justify the potential threat to privacy."

The Registrar's office has told the DFEE that its approach is out of date, and that it should look at more sophisticated methods of data matching which do protect privacy.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, also expressed doubt. He said that heads would see it as a massive extension of bureaucracy with serious implications for professional confidentiality. "If there is a convincing case for the proposals then heads will listen; but as yet that case has not been made," he said.

The Government is set to take the first step, the issue of specifications for "common pupil records" and ID numbers, by the end of next month, a fortnight after consultation closes.

The Office for Standards in Education, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and local authorities will all have to access pupil files, as will schools seeking information about a new pupil's background.

The common pupil records will replace most of the information now supplied in the form of class or school totals on Form 7, the statistical return which every school sends to the DFEE once a year.

The return will still not name individual teachers but will enable a pupil's progress to be linked with the classes attended during the year.

ID numbers are needed, says the Government, to protect against mix-ups. Schools will have to use them whenever they provide information on a child - such as pre-registering pupils for key stage tests and reporting results.

Schools will have to generate the ID numbers themselves on their computers, using a random number formula supplied to them. Special computer programs are also being produced so that the mammoth task of compiling the new-style Form 7 and passing it on to the DFEE can be carried out automatically by school computers.

All but the smallest schools - those with fewer than 50 pupils - will be required to transmit the information to the department over the new national grid, the Internet-based learning highway which the Prime Minister announced last term.

The DFEE claims that maintaining a central pool of pupil details will ease schools' workload.

It insists that there will be ample safeguards against improper use of the information. "Neither the department, nor any other central education agency, has any interest in the identity of individual pupils as such," said a spokesman.

"The reason for seeking information in this new form is to allow data matching - linking separate pieces of information about the same pupil reported at different times."

The department had promised to seek advice from Liberty, the leading civil liberties group, and from the Data Protection Registrar. Liberty has yet to respond.

Details of the plans contained in "Proposed arrangements for collecting statistical information from schools" are available on:

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