Why Big Brother must be right

26th March 2004 at 00:00
Phil Revell looks at data protection issues for schools

Tamsin brings her assignment in on time. This is a red letter day for her teachers. Tamsin's excuses are legendary. On her records, the grades all have the L in brackets - that denotes work handed in late - and her last report documented her problem with the calendar. But that's easily corrected. Tamsin's new approach to work can be recorded on the system.

"Never hands in on time" can now be changed to "Rarely hands work in on time".

Any data that a school holds has to be as accurate as possible. People should be able to discover what information is held on them and why, and there are strict controls over how such information can be used, particularly when third parties are involved.

This is the world of data protection, a world that some people plainly find perplexing. Humberside police weren't sure whether they were allowed to keep information on the Soham killer Ian Huntley, schools have banned parents videoing nativity plays, and press photographers are routinely told that they cannot take pictures of children without the permission of their parent.

And why not? It's all down to data protection. Some of this is genuinely complex. There are real issues about how long allegations about an unconvicted individual should be held by the police and about the safeguards that need to be in place before data can be shared.

But a lot of the furore reveals a complete misunderstanding of data protection legislation. Videoing a nativity play is not one, although it could be if the children were being filmed by the school with a view to distributing the video to third parties. The school may have worries related to child protection, and it may want to ban casual photography to safeguard the identities of individual children, but those are not necessarily data protection issues either. Which is not to say that there are no such issues in schools. It's just that the serious concerns don't appear to have appeared on the radar of most heads and ICT managers.

The real worries are about accuracy and access. How accurate is the information that schools hold about children and families? And who has access to it? This is even more important once schools start collecting data about pastoral issues. A grade is a grade, but a record of poor behaviour is a value judgment.

If a school identifies a child as "out of control", it could result in exclusion or, in the worst-case scenario, a child being taken into care.

Schools have a responsibility to ensure that such judgments are backed up by hard facts. And young people have the right to know what data is being accumulated about them, and the right to challenge information they believe to be inaccurate.

Information and guidance is available from www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk

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